revew: Simon Stephens & Mark Eitzel – Song From Far Away
Song From Far Away/
by Simon Stephens & Mark Eitzel/
dir Kirk Jameson/
design Ingrid Hu/
sound design Julian Starr/
22 Feb – 11 Mar 2023//
a doomed effort
Willem’s brother is dead. He cannot speak to him and so he writes letters. In the course of his writing, we discover that Willem may as well be dead, too; there are no people in his life he is close to, his relationships are fleeting or estranged. He is estranged from everything, really – he moves through the world like a ghost. We never know what his job is, though it is implied he services the soulless trading of goods as large as cities. By all accounts he seems a ghoul, but Willem himself is convinced of his own sentimentality, his softness, his worthiness of love. For all his brother’s death being Willem’s inciting incident, we see no portrait of him – only Willem, sighing into the air about himself.
Trying to record the past in writing is a doomed effort. I should know, I do it all the time. In Notes Made While Falling, Jenn Ashworth writes,
‘Relatable also means ‘that which can be told’… I learned that sometimes it’s safer to say nothing, and that there’s a relation between adaptation and silence. Once set into a story, the paragraph will replace the memory. Even as I reordered and shaped the material… I know that I will not remember what actually happened (this is not about what actually happened: what actually happened is lost and gone forever and even my journals turn up nothing of use at all – nothing).’
Ashworth articulates here how writing is a way of shaping memory. Writing can transform our recollections, and for Willem it becomes a proxy for emotional growth. He is incapable of building connections with those around him, is trapped in the act of writing himself into his own life post-hoc. When he writes, he begins to understand his relationships with others, but he is too late. He was there, but he can only participate through this lonely and solipsistic process of writing. The only growth he is capable of is this imagined growth, conducted in private once he has returned home.
When people ask me how I felt about a play I’ve seen, my response is often ‘I don’t know; I haven’t written about it yet.’ Writing is not just recording. Or rather, recording is an act of curation. When too close to something, it can be difficult to separate out the trees and the wood. Willem’s story is relatable in that sense that he is able to tell it. Though unfortunately for Willem, he is a poor propagandist. As far as we are concerned, these letters are all we know of Willem – and they paint him as a person unliked and barely tolerated by his family, who will leave behind nothing of note when he dies himself.
Worst of all, Willem is unaffected, or only faintly bemused, by the glancing impact he is able to leave on others’ lives. His brother’s death is a tragedy for him, is a thing for him to take on, to get over, to write letters about in order to understand himself better. Calling into the void, Willem inspires a ghost, but it is not that of his brother. His brother and he are too far removed. Willem reveals only that he is hollow, a spectre who barely exists.
It is difficult to avoid seeing Willem’s estrangement as a consequence of his being gay. He has a strained relationship with his parents and moved away from home suddenly – his sister does not understand him and he disturbs her children. Even the budding connection Willem feels when playing with his young niece is dashed away in a moment by his sister’s take on their interactions. Whether her perspective or Willem’s is more true will not matter in the long term – he is not going to be part of his niece’s life. Willem lives the lifestyle of a thirty-something gay man, but is emotionally and philosophically subject to the values of his ageing parents and married-with-kids sister.
In Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, Mortimer secures the murder of the eponymous king with an ambiguously worded letter:
This letter, written by a friend of ours
Contains his death, yet bids them save his life.
‘Edwardum occidere nolite timere, bonum est’,
‘Fear not to kill the king, ‘tis good he die.’
But read it thus, and that’s another sense:
‘Edwardum occidere nolite, timere bonum est’,
‘Kill not the king, ‘tis good to fear the worst.’
It is clear that Edward is gay. When he elevates his favourite, Gaveston, above all others, he slips outside of the category of rightful monarch, and it is slippery prose which is employed to undo him. Willem’s own letters condemn him, too. Although for him, it is his life which refuses clear interpretation. He is, like Edward, simultaneously living and dead.
Though he is theoretically in control of the content of his letters, Willem slips categories; the moral world he inhabits pervades the sense of his writing, and leaves him dead. There is no clue that Willem might be content to have different values to his family. His life is empty because his family would find it empty. Though he can write to his dead brother, his words only drag him further into an emotional wasteland; they cannot resurrect a relationship which never lived. Because Willem is gay, he is out of joint with the world: a parody of how a gay man might live a life, but always in a shadow, the gift of being liberated without the power to feel alive.
The problem of the review is also its power and its point. Just as Willem’s story is his incomplete, affective and ego-stained take on what he has experienced, here is mine. In the introduction to his Tynan on Tynan, Kennneth Tynan writes,
‘I can only be personal. For me, a critic’s last responsibility is to the people who read him first… At his best, he is writing letters to posterity… His job is to record a unique experience as it impinged on his mind and sensibility, and the whole machinery of bias and preference contained within.’
I agree with Tynan on this point; I can only be personal, my reviews are only ever about me. Often they are about the play, too, and other things besides, but they are all about me. Which I value. I am wholly of the opinion criticism should never be lonely. If there were only one critic on the scene, we’d learn nothing about the work and nothing about ourselves. Criticism, like any honest writing, grows stronger in company. More voices, please, more readers, more comment, and each of these wholly itself and wholly honest. Functioning criticism isn’t any one thought nor any one review or writer – but the noise, the conversation, the tumult, the contrast. Criticism is a kind of thinking in public. Perhaps Willem would be a good critic – all his writing and thinking is ultimately about himself, too.
The tragedy of Willem is there is no one there to read.