The Review: BAM’s The End of Eddy and St. Ann’s History of Violence
I never heard of these books or the writer before the press releases arrived, I’m ashamed to say, but the celebrated young French writer, Édouard Louis (2018’s Who Killed My Father) is a star already in the making. He wrote his first, The End of Eddy when he was 21 years old, which immediately become a best seller with 300,000 copies sold so far in France. He followed his debut soon after with the History of Violence, a tense look at rape and seduction, connection and internalized homophobia. Both have been adapted to the stage, and oddly enough, Brooklyn has been gifted with them both at the same time. Presented at two different theatrical spaces by two very different theatre companies from two different countries in two different languages, other than the French that the novels were written in, the singularity of truth and passion resonate, as they both attempt to transport us to a French countryside that is both poor and industrial and then drive us forward through a world that spits and tries to strangle us with its oppressive rage. It is as if Paris “might be in another country“, giving us a view inside the poverty of violence that exists within a town and within the mind, where the type of man one should be is as far removed from Eddy as Paris is from us and him, and then see how he tries to survive.
The End of Eddy, presented by Untitled Projects/Unicorn Theatre (London) and adapted by Pamela Carter (National Theatre of Scotland’s Them!), is an autobiographical summation of Eddy’s upbringing in that poor industrial wasteland. Configured around a glass factory and a bus stop, the play and town fill in the convoluted structure of the young man who will grow up to be Édouard. As directed with sharp focus for psychological detail and familial deconstruction by Stewart Laing (Untitled Projects’ blind_sight), the technology stands out front with four video screens that will help put formulations on the family dynamics. They sometimes get in the way, but they also assist in a tour of the foundations by two young men who play different aspects of Eddy, as well as all those that surround him in his family and his school life. The two very game actors, Oseloka Obi (HBO’s “Avenue 5“) and James Russell-Morley (Theatre503’s Gone), speak directly to us with passion and engagement after emerging from the one structural element on the stage, the dingy bus shelter, that lurks behind the four monitors, courtesy of set and costume designer Hyemi Shin (Malthouse’s Solaris), with straight forward lighting by Zerlina Hughes (Citizen’s The Father), and solid sound design by Josh Anio Grigg (The Yard’s The Crucible). You can almost smell the stink and staleness that must hang in the air around and in that bus shelter, although the four screens distance us from the intimacy of that dynamic enclosure.
It’s a truly instructional and fascinating drive down into the town with these two very compelling versions of Eddy as our confidants. And with the video design by Finn Ross (Donmar’s Sweet Charity, Broadway’s Mean Girls), Eddy’s “girlie ways” are dissected and explored like a societal and familial archeologist. Violence is the norm, he states, as they taunt him by calling him “a girl, as if that’s the worst thing in the world” to be called. The two years of bullying and the four-in-the-barn scenarios all ring shockingly true and sadly standardized. Regardless how many times he states, “Today, I’m going to be a man“, his unruly body and the toxic masculinity of the town, and society, if you want to expand the narrative, always seems to get the best of him. They appear to win out, but not in the end, thanks to an out of town opportunity and a drive with his dad and the beautifully included Celine. The End of Eddy is nothing close to the end of Édouard, but just the beginning, as we soon find out a few days later when we wander over to St. Ann’s Warehouse and get smacked down by part two.
History of Violence, brought over to St. Ann’s by Schaubühne Berlin, the wonderfully inventive theatre company who did something amazingly compelling with the similarly themed Returning to Reims back in February of 2018, has expanded the scenarios that stalk and torment the young man we recently encountered in The End of Eddy. He’s grown, and escaped, living his somewhat more polished life (much like this play as opposed to the other) as a pseudo-bourgeois intellect and writer far from the dirty dismal streets of his hometown. Dynamically embodied by the hypnotic Laurenz Laugenberg (Theater in der Josefstadt Wien’s Spring Awakening), he sits, much like the two other Eddys did in the background, watching and waiting, but this time around, others in white pantsuits emerge from the back, placing down numbered markers with gloved hands, pinpointing the exact contactual areas of violence that has unfolded with police precision. The pink shirted young Édouard stays watching, stressed and agitated like an abused creature, reliving the events that brought us all to this moment. It’s a place where lying is the only power over authority, and recovery is based solely on denying that heart-breaking reality that exists most deafening all around. It’s a far more disturbing beginning than the one I witnessed at BAM, and a prelude to the tense attack on our senses that will come later upon us, sneakily and seductively. The drumming undercurrent, thanks to musician Thomas Witte and music by Nila Ostendorf, teases and bleeds out the History of Violence that is on its way. We watch, in tense curious silence along side the young man, as the fingerprint is dusted and recorded, and the smell of sex and fear hang heavily over the bare raw set designed most beautifully by the expert witness to trauma, Nina Wetzel (who also did the costumes).
As adapted with finesse and skill by Thomas Ostermeier, Florian Borchmeyer, and Édouard Louis, this History, not to be confused with the similarly titled 2005 Cronenberg film, as portrayed in a late night horny mouse and donkey dance on the dark streets of Paris, bite down and hold tight to our flesh. It’s triumphant in its execution and pace, showering down aspects of societal posturing, hate, and negativity against humanity, morality, and race, layered on the condescending voices of the police (Aline Stiegler, Christoph Gawenda) and the fascinatingly incorporated warnings of his difficult sister, dynamically portrayed by Stiegler (2013’s ‘Flights of Fancy‘). She’s the perfect embodiment of their hometown, that hangs over the escalation asking the questions that need to be asked, caring most desperately for a better outcome, frustrated by the blindness of her naive brother, but rarely getting answered by him in the moment. It’s one of the strongest bits of posturing and commentary, as it rings solidly true, and horrifically honest.
Directed with clarity and an emotional vision by Ostermeier (Schauspielhaus Hamburg’s Disco Pigs), the performers wait and rewind, saying it again, and slowing it down, in order to stop, reverse, and repeat, all thanks to the collaborative choreography of Johanna Lemke and the strong video presentation by Sébastien Dupouey, accentuated by the dynamically tight lighting by Michael Wetzel. The sister sits on the sidelines knowing and seeing, as the seduction by Reda, cleverly portrayed by the enticing Renato Schuch (Schauspiel Köln’s Iphigenia) rises and falls into intimacy, engagement, and attack. The categorized man is filled with intent, but for what? He needs to take, and to hit back, at himself for his lust, and at the object for its mistaken power. He rages outward with a fierce and unmanageable fire, and inward with confused blind simplicity. Atonement for his sinful desire is understood, even with a scarf wrapped tightly around the neck, but the horror of what almost transpires bruises and scars our own, leaving us worn out and as unsettled as the young man himself.
The End of Eddy is just the primer to the main event. It’s inside the perfectly orchestrated History of Violence where Édouard gets pulled apart and exposed for all he believes and fully stands for. He was brought up rough, but his recovery from seduction is more layered with difficulty. It and he are scratched with internalized shame and disturbance, in a way that lingers and twitches. The English-adapted Eddy sets us up, but it’s the German-languaged (with English subtitles) History of Violence that pushes us over the edge. The power structure of the police forces him to lie, causing the complicated truth to slip out of reach with each question answered. But the personal wound is scarred into his soul and ours as we walk out of St. Ann’s after a grueling but magnificent two hours. Their seduction of our senses is complete, and entirely successful.