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Song from Far Away (Young Vic)

Ivo Van Hove returns to the Young Vic following A View from the Bridge to direct the UK premiere of Olivier Award-winner Simon Stephens' new play

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Eelco Smits in Song from Far Away at the Young Vic
© Jan Versweyveld

If theatre is a here and now art-form – all presence and shared space – then Song from Far Away is a self-sabotaging show. It does everything it can to get away from us and, the more it succeeds in that, the more it fails as theatre. It is a stubbornly unsatisfying watch: unfeeling, cold and remote.

Willem (Eelco Smits) is much the same. A Dutch banker in New York, he keeps the world at a distance; part of that ultra-rich, American Psycho class that elevates itself above the rest of us with wealth, flying business class, ordering room service and wearing noise-cancelling headphones. Outside his apartment, a long way down, two tiny traffic lights blink like LEDs. He turns the aircon on, refusing to even breath the same unrarefied air we do.

It's grief that brings Willem back to humanity. With his younger brother Pauli's sudden death, he flies home – whatever home might mean – to Amsterdam. If, at first, he distances himself from his family, opting to stay at a nearby hotel on company expenses, he gradually gets involved: washing up, helping out, letting his relatives in. Over the course of the piece, Willem thaws. The text is threaded with temperatures – coldness, ice and snow – and halfway through, Smits disrobes entirely to stand before us naked – absolutely, undeniably present.

Simon Stephens's play is the opposite. Written as seven letters from Willem to Pauli, it has next to no bearing on the present; letters being written in the past, about past events, to someone absent elsewhere. It's subtly alienating too: Willem couldn't have written these words, he's fictitious.

Director Ivo van Hove puts Willem's New York apartment onstage, only in Jan Versweyveld's design, the room is so blank and cardboard-like that it evades any such concrete setting. It's neither here nor there.

Meanwhile Smits – a regular with van Hove's Toneelgroep company – never addresses us directly. He speaks English with a Flemmish accent – as alienating, presumably, for a Dutch audience as for an English one. Imagine, then, how it must have seemed in Sao Paolo, where the play premiered in March. This is theatre without roots – no more Brazilian than it is British or Dutch. It's international theatre that belongs nowhere: a nomadic production.

Our world is smaller than ever – it takes Willem seven hours to get from New York to Amsterdam, where he finds the same shops and the same banks – yet, as families sit around a dinner table, staring into their iPhones, we're further removed than ever. Why does it take a death to make us reconnect?

The interesting thing is how Willem grew so distant. The answer's simple: heartache. While in Amsterdam he meets up with Isaac; the man he, wrongly, walked out on 12 years ago and has thought of every day since. Easier, perhaps, to cut oneself off than risk getting hurt again; easier not to get involved than to risk failure.

Song, Willem explains late on, was how hunter-gatherers communicated. "They didn't live so close together," so they sang to make themselves heard from afar. Willem does likewise: erupting into shards of an elegiac Mark Eitzel number that bring him back into the present, back into the room with us. The music is ripe with feeling – doubly so after so distant a text.

All this, then, is a daredevil act. How far can a piece of theatre push us away before hooking us back in? That's a fascinating challenge, one born out in myriad ways across text, production and performance, but one that's ultimately a bridge too far. Stephens and co. go too far and manage to make us stop caring. Writing that works beautifully on the page turns soggy and sentimental when spoken aloud, and not even Eitzel's song can win us back. A brilliant experiment; a noble failure.

Song from Far Away runs at the Young Vic until 19th September.