Theatre review: Song from Far Away - Town Hall Theatre Galway

4/5

As its title suggests, remoteness is the theme of Simon Stephens’ beautiful play. It’s a remoteness that — in an age when communications devices have derailed communication itself — we can probably all identify with. The English dramatist wrote the play in collaboration with Mark Eitzel, celebrated frontman with American Music Club and one of the finest singer-songwriters of the past 30 years.

As if those key personnel weren’t impressive enough, the play is directed by the acclaimed Ivo van Hove (above) and is carried by a deft and moving one-man performance by Dutch actor Eelco Smits. It all comes together wonderfully, creeping up on you in a slow, measured way, before walloping you in the gut.

The play centres on Willem, a sharp and confident corporate drone who must return from New York to his hometown of Amsterdam when his younger brother, Pauli, dies suddenly. The text arises from a series of letters that Willem begins to write to Pauli in his hotel room. The play subverts our expectations, however. You presume that Willem’s letters will constitute outpourings of grief for his dead brother. As the play advances, however, you realise that it’s actually about Willem’s own sudden recognition that it is he himself who is deadened.

Avoiding any clichéd tropes of melancholy, Smits’s performance is charismatic as hell. Alone in his hotel, shorn of his persona, Willem is quick-witted, acerbic, and insightful, but his monologue reveals how tenuous and icy his relations with other people have become.

Wearing his big headphones designed to block out the world, he’s like a slightly nicer, non-homicidal counterpart to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. But Willem’s malady is merely a manifestation of the ease with which one nowadays becomes cut off, detached, and far too self-absorbed. Like a siren-call, one of Eitzel’s songs, ‘Go Where The Love Is’, becomes the haunting melody that awakens Willem to his predicament, and the play, in a lovely conceit, charts his attempt to fall in time with that melody.


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