Ivo van Hove is not very interested in being ‘ethical,' nor is he interested in the perhaps uncomplicated polarities that are always created when good and evil so obviously diametrically oppose one another.
His Song from Far Away, written for its sole actor Eelco Smits by Simon Stephens, is similarly disinterested in the ethical- it places unhappy Willem, resident of New York but back home in Amsterdam for the funeral of his brother, in a bare hotel room for the whole of its one hour and 15 minutes duration whilst, in the form of letters, addressed mainly to the brother, he raves against all that we now recognise as the modern world.
The form chosen by Simon Stephens to present his relationships with his dead and still living family members, with his ex and himself, through the medium of epistolary theatre and scenes where Willem talks to himself or others as if they were there or squirms on the floor naked as if a living representation of a painting by Francis Bacon, is, in some ways emancipatory: it frees up both the character (from the need to act differently in the presence of other real characters on stage) and the audience (from the authorial weight- and so authorial truth- given by hearing and seeing the other characters from an illusory omnipresent position). This sort of manic, intense experience is freeing yet, for an audience, as restraining and as oppressive as it must feel for Willem. For, we have no way of knowing how Willem’s mum and dad really feel about him, or how they really behave. We can’t take Willem’s word for it just because we see he is a nice guy, in a tremendous amount of internal pain. Similarly, we have no way of knowing how hurtful towards his family Willem really is, again we can only rely on Willem’s 3rd person accounts- which, whilst self denigrating, are almost brutal in Eelco Smits’ sometimes angry despairing whispers.
In a production which, to the senses anyway, produces juxtaposing feelings- a huge carved out space on a narrow stage, warmth from the huge light spilling windows against the cold dark and the snow, the hard lines of the doors, the walls and the window sills against the softness of the carpet, it sometimes feels that Song from Far Away almost conjures up something rare on stage- a cognitive dissonance. We watch Willem struggling for some internal consistency to grab onto and lose him, just as he loses himself. None of this is particularly explicit in the text. Instead, Ivo van Hove brings it out using various theatrical devices- Willem takes off all his clothes, as if trying to shed himself and find his real authenticity, a trick with the light, where Willem’s shadow multiplies with an animated negative force and where we are astounded by its beauty (as is Willem) yet are also warned that Willem cannot stay in his ‘Lady of Shallot’ like cave forever, and, in the ambiguous ending, where Willem could easily be echoing/mirroring a version of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, although it might mean something more ominous.
There is no sense of overall truth. Not just for the audience, which leaves us uneasy, but for Willem too- for him, ‘la vérité fait la grève’. It’s almost as if, as we hear about Willem’s father’s reaction to him, or his sister’s, that everyone else knows something about existing that Willem doesn’t, everyone else is seemingly connected by the illusory synapses of some collective truth. Willem, somehow, is not. Within this framework of his family’s truth, Willem cannot self realise.
Song from Far Away necessarily invites judgment then, and we the audience, although we are not in full possession of the facts or experiential truth, are the judges. Willem is constantly diminished- or at the same time- made real to himself and others by the others only because he lacks (didn’t love his ex enough and expected too much, does not behave with the right etiquette etc). He exists and they exist therefore, because of him, through negation. This equation brings up an unexpected illumination, shedding an all important light upon our own lives. Just as Willem is defined and contrarily diminished by the others just because of what he does not do or feel, so he brings them into existence by that same diminishing for the audience. It’s an important point. That we tend to or can have a tendency to (though not always) define ourselves and others through our perceived notions of their negations of ourselves, with diminishes both us and them.
We can’t tell just how good or how bad Willem really is, whether he bulldozes over the feelings of others or not, or whether he is just a bull in a china shop. Or whether, as is more likely, he is, in too basic a term, both good and not so good at the same time. The ambiguous ending is perhaps testament to this as it ties up neatly the at least two raging personalities in Willem- the wild romanticist and the deeply pessimistic realist.
Song from Far Away is at the Young Vic until 19th September.
written by Simon Stephens
Direction Ivo van Hove
Music & Lyrics Mark Eitzel
Design & Light Jan Versweyveld
Dramaturgy Bart Van den Eynde
Assistant Designer Ramón Huijbrechts
Toneelgroep Amsterdam Private Producer Joachim Fleury