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Matt Trueman: the best shows might not be the most memorable

Though he didn't think much of it, Simon Stephens' Song from Far Away is still nibbling away at Matt Trueman

Eelco Smits in Song from Far Away
© Jan Versweyveld

If you read my review of Song from Far Away, the latest Simon Stephens play, you'll know that I didn't think much of it. "Unfeeling, cold and remote," I wrote back then, dismissing it as standard-issue Simon Stephens: all those familiar ideas about globalisation and atomisation - airport lounges and anonymous hotel rooms and an aloof uncaring banker, White Russians with Brazilians in Amsterdam gay bars - assembled into a new play with nothing new to add. It didn't get to me like his writing usually does. I watched Wastwater like the iconic Blown Away Man. Carmen Disruption flayed the skin off me.

A month on, however, and Song from Far Away is still nibbling away at me, pestering me in idle moments. In fact, I've probably thought about it more than any other show I saw last month - despite disliking it at the time, in the moment. More than that, I've started to feel it after the event, like an irritant or an itch. Now, for whatever reason, I can't quite seem to shake it off.

Something about Willem, the play's protagonist who returns home from New York to Amsterdam following the death of his younger brother, has gotten under my skin: the shard of the past he carries around with him every day, under his. For 12 years, Willem says, he's thought of an ex-boyfriend every day, the one he left because things weren't quite perfect between them. Isaac, he's called. That distant decision is, for him, still present somehow, still a part of his day-to-day existence. It nibbles away at him now and then, pesters him in idle moments.

We've all got an Isaac of some sort or other, be it an ex-partner, an old friend lost to time or a.n. other regret of some sort. Once in a while our old decisions sneak up on us and dredge up feelings we thought long buried. They're not as strong as they were first time around, but you feel them nonetheless. Muted. Like, yep, like a song from far away...

The more I think about it, the more I think Song from Far Away means to work like this, to linger like a recurring dream, rather than to be felt in the room. Not only does its form - Willem reads through seven letters to his late brother - seem as intentionally aloof as its protagonist, it is also fascinated by the way the past creeps up on you, by the way nostalgia works and memories feel.

I've noticed, this month, how much stock I place in feeling in the theatre. I want my theatre to shake me, to stir me, to move me. I want watching to involve more than watching, and the shows I've really loved in recent weeks are testimony to that. I've raved about those that got into my body, and not just my brain: Jane Eyre, with its rhythmic, runaway pulse; The Crucible, shrill and scratchy as fingernails down blackboards; Lela and Co, dragging us down into darkness, raising gasps with every galling interruption; the taboo-twisting queasiness of Harrogate.

The critic John Lahr catches some of this in the introduction to his new book, Joy Ride. "Part of the theatre's big magic," he starts, "is its ability to exhilarate; it has the power to put us beside ourselves, to banish gravity, to call out of us our most buried feelings, to make the moment unforgettable, to kill Time. That's its joy ride."

The thing is feelings fade. You can sit in a show and have the most intense, visceral, emotional reaction for an hour or two and yet, even later that evening, return to normal. Think back a few years and you might remember that you felt, but not what or how - certainly not beyond vague, empty labels: excited, say, or sad.

What remains instead are images and ideas, sounds and stories. Moments. Shows get boiled down into sensory memories, compacted like crushed cars into singular images, but in the process the feeling falls out of them.

In other words, the best shows - those that really make you feel - might not be the most memorable. They might not be the shows that really stay with you. How does criticism account for that?