Ukuleles and earworms - Mark Eitzel on Song From Far Away

Mark Eitzel.

Mark Eitzel.

THIS YEAR'S arts festival line up features a number of shows where collaboration is the order of the day, among them Song From Far Away, in which acclaimed English dramatist Simon Stephens teams up with celebrated American singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel to pen a play for Belgian director Ivo Van Hove and Dutch actor Eelco Smits.

A young banker returns from New York to his birth city Amsterdam to be present at the funeral of his younger brother. As he awaits the funeral he writes letters, alternately melancholic, rebellious or calm in tone, in an attempt to come into contact with the brother he never had any real contact with in life.

This is a probing drama about an unforgettable homecoming to an estranged family, a lost love, unsettling sex, and an unexamined life, which has received glowing reviews. Time Out hailed it as "A frail, gorgeous monologue – Smits is splendid – wryly charismatic, brimming with confusion and long-suppressed feeling." The Guardian declared that ‘Smits’s Dutch-inflected English makes every word sound jagged, as if its edges have been exposed, and his bravely understated performance renders Willem naked and vulnerable… Song from Far Away offers a window into the heart."

Playwright Stephens and director Van Hove have both been garlanded with numerous awards and accolades for their work. Long-associated with the Royal Court, Stephens’ stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time won the Olivier Award for Best New Play 2013 and the 2015 Tony Award for Best Play. Van Hove, one of today’s foremost international stage directors, recently helmed the Enda Walsh/David Bowie musical, Lazarus, and a production of Antigone starring Juliette Binoche. His staging of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, starring Saoirse Ronan, is currently running on Broadway.

Stephens wrote Song from Far Away especially for Toneelgroep actor Eelco Smits while Mark Eitzel wrote the enchanting title song. Eitzel is one of the most celebrated and idiosyncratic American song writers of his generation, best known as the leader of the iconic indie rock band American Music Club, who spun beautifully chaotic webs of guitar from Eitzel's gloomy but compassionate studies of lost souls and alcohol.

Since striking out on his own, Eitzel has embraced a number of different musical approaches, while his witty, but downcast, lyrical style has remained constant. In 2010, he worked together with Simon Stephens on the musical Marine Parade, for which he wrote the music.

'We went to Amsterdam together on an exploratory visit'

Song From Far Away

Stephens and Eitzel have been friends for a number of years, a friendship that began after Stephens sent the songwriter some fanmail with his early plays attached. Both share a passion for theatre and music and their initial meeting led to their working together on Marine Parade. Over an afternoon chat, speaking from his San Fransisco base, Eitzel reveals how he became involved in Song From Far Away.

“Simon is a big fan of Ivo Van Hove who is the director of Song from Far Away and at one point Ivo said he would like to do a production with him," Eitzel tells me. "At the time, Simon was looking for something for us to do together as well and he said to Ivo ‘what about bringing Mark Eitzel onboard’ and Ivo said ‘Great’ and that is how it started!”

Eitzel offers his personal take on the play and how his title song fits into it: “Basically, the man at the centre of the play is one of these rich guys who trades stocks; he’s kind of cold and distant. His brother dies and he has to go back home but he doesn’t particularly like going back home because he doesn’t like his family, so he is a little torn. He keeps hearing this song in different places he goes and he finally figures out how to play it. His brother had given him a ukulele and he works out how to play the song on it, that’s how the song works in the play.”

I ask Mark whether the song was written especially for the play or if it was something he’d being working on separately. “A bit of both,” he replies. “It was something I was writing initially. It was synchronicity; I was writing it and then adapted it a bit more for the play. We thought we’d be writing more throughout the whole play but when Evo brought it to the stage it changed quite a bit in the rehearsal process.”

In the festival programme the play is credited as being by Stephens and Eitzel, so did Eitzel have more of an input to its development than just providing the song? “Yes, Simon and I kind of talked about it together quite a bit,” he reveals. “We also went to Amsterdam together on an exploratory visit. Basically Simon is the writer but we did kind of do it together!”

Mark Eitzel green

There is something of a sombre coincidence that Song From Far Away should come to Galway not long after the atrocity of the Orlando massacre in so far as the character Smits portrays in the play is gay, as are both director Van Hove and Eitzel. Does Eitzel feel this might affect the way audiences might respond to the play?

“No I don’t think so,” he opines. “It’s ironic, it was supposed to go to St Petersburg but that got cancelled, I don’t know why – they must have thought it was gay propaganda! I don’t know, it just seems like this stupid country of mine, America, as it dwindles, this kind of stuff is going to happen more and more.

"It’s not just being gay, it is that being in a minority makes for soft targets. Yet, on the other hand, at the same time we have gay marriage and a real openness compared to 20 years ago as regards accepting gay people, it’s amazing and then you have things like this. It’s really odd, it’s just that the whole country is divided between conservative and progressives and you have extremists who do their thing, which is shooting people.”

Eitzel expresses his regret that he wil not be able to visit Galway (“such a beautiful place” ) while Song from Far Away is on here. Fans of his music however can look forward to another of his collaborations appearing soon with his next album being produced by ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler.

In wrapping up our interview, I note that Simon Stephens said of Eitzel’s song for Song from Far Away that, "for someone who’s made a career out of being morose, he’s written a hell of an earworm". What's his reaction to that? “I try to do that with all my songs,” he replies wryly. “Always!”

Song From Far Away runs at the Town Hall Theatre from July 12 to 17 at 8pm with a matinee on July 16 at 2pm. For tickets see www.giaf.ie

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