Monologues are normally all about writing and performance; rarely can one have been so marked out as this by its visual impact. But then director Ivo van Hove and his set/lighting designer Jan Versweyveld do not seem to do “normal”. Returning to the scene of their triumph last year with Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, the Belgian pair tackle Simon Stephen’ 80-minute reflection on grieving and solitude. The set is a New York apartment, split into a small entrance hall and a main living space, with two square rugs spread on the floor. Save for a single chair, a standing lamp and a noisy air-conditioning unit, the apartment is bare; long shadows cast by the lamp and by light coming through a door frame create striking images, set against two large windows through which falling snow can be seen on a freezing January night. It is to this vision of isolation that Willem returns after attending the funeral of his younger brother Pauli in Amsterdam. Willem, a Wall Street trader, having no-one with whom to share his grief, has written a series of letters to Pauli which he reads out to him, pretending that he is sitting on the hallway chair. The extent of Willem’s loss, being expressed verbally for the first time, and also his aching loneliness are brought out beautifully in Stephens’ descriptive prose. Having gone back to his home city to be met by a disapproving family and a former lover who has moved on, Willem now returns to this desolate place to let his true emotions outpour. As Willem, Dutch actor Eelco Smits contrasts long spells of monotone delivery with outbursts of anger and tears. He performs more than half the play completely naked, conveying his openness and vulnerability and also plays on guitar and sings mournful songs composed by Mark Eitzel. In all, the production is impressive, but, in making it so cold and distant, van Hove puts up a barrier to audience involvement that robs the piece of some of its emotional impact.
Performance date: 7 September 2015