Arts

Broadway Review

‘History of Violence’: Edouard Louis’ book becomes a shocking play about rape, sexuality, and racism

Website:
The Daily Beast

Date:
November 18, 2019

Edouard Louis’ bestseller about his rape and near-murder has been adapted into a shocking and compelling play, which confronts issues around violence, racism, and sexuality.

No, David Cronenberg fans, this is not a stage adaptation of that movie. Édouard Louis’ much-acclaimed 2016 autobiographical novel, History of Violence, about his rape and near-murder in his Paris apartment on Christmas Eve in 2012, was a bestseller.

The play of the book, adapted by Thomas Ostermeier (who also directs), Florian Borchmeyer, and Louis himself, is shocking and compelling. The poster picture of the two male leads looking smilingly intimately at each other is the play’s first dark subversion. What we eventually see on stage is the furthest from loving warmth.

History of Violence, which opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn (to Dec. 1) on Monday evening, begins as it ends with the authorities searching for clues in Édouard’s (Laurenz Laufenberg) apartment. It tells a tale in fractured timelines and perspectives. Small cameras film bodies and details, which flash on to a screen behind. It plays as both theater and documentary. The adroitly chameleonic Cristoph Gawenda and the excellent Alina Stiegler play multiple characters—police personnel, nurses, doctors, and Édouard’s sister and her husband.

Stiegler is a particularly strong voice, and a voice for some in the audience at certain moments, challenging her double-named brother and his version of events that awful night, and the version he tells of his own familial past. This, fascinatingly, remains unknown to us at the end. Was his family OK about him being gay (his sister), or very not OK (him)? We do not know.

His sister is not seeking to diminish him when she asks about why he did what he did that night, inviting the stranger home, but she is also—like the theater audience—angry and pained that he would be raped. She asks him why he let his attacker, “Reda” (the excellent Renato Schuch; cute, insistent, then volcanically terrifying), up into his apartment that night.

She is asking questions for herself, and for us. And Laufenberg, who is boyish and charming, sometimes impishly declines to answer, and sometimes looks as angry with himself as she is. He is in control and very out of it, and Laufenberg’s performance is many-shaded and brave.

The performances are meticulous—and Ostermeier, resident director of Berlin’s Schaubühne theatre, resists convention, just as his actors and source material do. On a bare stage, with tables, a bed, and other objects brought on for minimal context, we shift to the December night the men meet on the streets of Paris, the first cute and nervy flirtation, the going back to Édouard’s apartment, and then the fast escalation of terror and the assault that unfolds there.

In Louis’ telling, in what we see on stage, he was always prey and target. Reda, physically and verbally, will not let him go as he flirts his way into his apartment.

The sexual and physical assault is awful enough, and extremely graphically performed. Three people in the audience—one man at high speed—left the performance this critic attended. If such topics are in any way particularly personal, then know that before attending. But what shocks subsequently is Louis’ open-heartedness toward his attacker.

Reda was a young Kabyle Algerian man; Louis in his own life knew the effects of poverty and prison on people dear to him. He did not want that for Reda. This may make more sense in what is, as the critics hailed it, a beautifully and powerfully written memoir. “I want to be a writer of violence. The more you write about it, the more you can do it,” Louis told The Guardian last year.

In the same interview, Louis signaled his concern that his story could in some way read as racist, given the nationality of his attacker: “I saw immediately the police reduce this story to a racist fable: ‘Ah, OK, it’s the story of an Algerian who attacked a blond, blue-eyed person.’… I thought how can I write this book without people using it to produce a racist discourse? Because that’s what the police had tried to do.”

On stage, race emerges as a nervously handled theme too. First we learn of Reda’s origins and his father’s journey to France. But this sits uneasily alongside his violence and how little else we know about him. Louis’ determination to protect his attacker is even more disturbing, even if it springs from the kindest place. The very little we know of Reda echoes against him as we watch what he does to Louis.

But for Louis the writer and Louis the character on stage, this is his story to tell, and his determination to do so against the expectations of what his sister thinks he should do and should say (and us too, watching it) reveals much of his contrary, individual character.

This, then, remains a difficult story without familiar, pleasing, justice- and tolerance-celebrating resolutions, and should be taken as such; not a model for others, just a story of its own. In reality, the story continued. It wasn’t over. But then, as we observe a catatonic Louis at the end of this stark play, we could have guessed that.