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Theatre in Review: History of Violence (Schaubühne Berlin/St. Ann's Warehouse)

Alina Stiegler, Laurenz Laufenberg. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

History of Violence is a horror story, but a contemplative one; it features one of the most disturbing acts I have ever seen onstage, out of which it teases a multiplicity of meanings. It is a difficult, demanding, and extraordinary piece of theatre. A companion piece of sorts to Returning to Reims, also produced by Schaubühne Berlin and seen at St. Ann's Warehouse in 2018, it expands on the earlier show's themes, finding in a brutal encounter between two men a kind of road map to the social conflicts that roil the world today.

It is clear from the beginning that Eddy, the narrator, has been raped and nearly murdered by Reda, a man he picked up on Christmas Day. (The text is taken from an autobiographical book by the French writer Édouard Louis.) The early passages detail Eddy's frantic attempts to remove Reda's scent from his apartment -- laundering bedclothes, scrubbing surfaces, and repeatedly washing himself in the shower; he even resorts to squiring a saline solution into his nose. (There is also a trip to the emergency room to deal with the terror of possible HIV infection.) But it is when he reports the crime that he feels exposed, probed, and blamed for putting himself in harm's way.

For example, Reda is descended from the Kabyle, a Berber ethnic group; Eddy, looking at the police report, says, "I can still hear the racism of the police official who interviewed me later, the reflexive racism: For them 'North African' wasn't geographical information. It meant reprobate, miscreant, criminal." Eddy is further unsettled when a policeman asks him, with quiet incredulity, "You brought a stranger up to your apartment, in the middle of the night, just like that?" "Everybody does that all the time," he replies, adding for emphasis, "People like me." Both attacker and victim have been instantly classified in a way that, as we will learn, has little to do with the complex realities of their lives.

Clinically depressed following the incident, Eddy escapes to his home, in a failed factory town in the north of France, where his sister, Clara, lives with her husband. Dragged down by a hardscrabble life -- their mother worked as a housekeeper for the elderly, loathing every minute of it -- defined by unemployment and lack of opportunity, Clara looks on her brother with a cool, clinical eye. She and their mother both insist that they aren't fazed by Eddy's sexual orientation, even as they request, with stunning condescension, that he "tone down the camp act. To not dress so provocatively, that's not asking too much." They add, "Eddy, please don't tell Grandpa you've been...bewitched" -- a euphemism that speaks volumes about their deep distaste for his most intimate feelings.

At the same time, Clara resents Eddy for escaping to Paris and his studies at a university. There are few moments quite as chilling as when, commenting on his brutalization -- and using it as a stage for her own bitterness -- she says, "He's walking through Paris on that night, and I'd bet my life on it, he's thinking: How far I've come, what a long way it's been. When he thinks that way, he thinks of me, too. Why should he let me off the hook? He's always reassuring himself, telling himself: I'm different from her now, I've made it on my own." Like Returning to Reims, History of Violence has much to say about young gay men who flee unloving homes for the big city, where, coming out, they leap across class lines, compounding their alienation from so-called loved ones.

Then again, it is Clara who notes the most awful irony of all, that the episode with Reda is based on a fundamental misunderstanding: "Édouard puts his mask on, he plays the part of the bourgeois intellectual so well, that in the end his equal attacks him, and thinks he's from the other side. You know? If he'd told Reda these same stories it would have reassured him, things could've ended differently."

Indeed, over the course of a long night of sex and conversation, Reda reveals himself to be the son of a laborer from North Africa, a man who only scraped by, living in a worker's dormitory and sending home money along with lies about his prosperity. Reda fares no better than his father, surviving by doing plumbing jobs for under-the-table payments while clutching at society's bottom rung. He has, nevertheless, absorbed the prejudices of those above him. "I can't stand those fucking Arabs," he says. "Just look at them, how they walk around. They destroy everything. Cars, houses. If we let them, they'd destroy France." To him, the blond, blue-eyed Eddy, carrying books by Claude Simon and Friedrich Nietzsche, is an erotic dream of belonging; he cannot know that Eddy is a bullied escapee from a poverty-stricken world.

Reda's reverie is destroyed when Eddy catches him stealing a phone and iPad; suddenly stripped of his dignity, shame and rage take over, along with a kind of self-disgust at what the men have shared. As Clara notes, "He desires you and loathes his desire at the same time. He wants you to atone for this desire." What follows, after so much prefatory analysis, is a vicious assault, one that makes indisputably clear that soul murder is the aggressor's true aim. Eddy -- a lonely idealist, still seeking his place in the world -- is reduced to an object, a repository for Reda's rage; to witness this beautiful, innocent young man being so atrociously dehumanized is terrible; be prepared to be deeply shaken.

Thomas Ostermeier, who adapted the book in collaboration with the author and Florian Borchmeyer, has staged History of Violence fluently on a spare playing area designed by Nina Wetzel, who also did the costumes. The cast members step in and out of the action, sometimes addressing the audience directly using floor mics; they also occasionally take part in oddly choreographed movements by Johanna Lemke. The musician Thomas Witte accompanies them on drums and keyboards, using the compositions of Nils Ostendorf. Sébastien Dupouey's video dominates here, with a live feed providing close-up views of the actors' faces mixed with images of rainy streets, the view through a car windshield, and postcards and maps, among others. Michael Wetzel's lighting includes a rectangle of fluorescent units overhead to approximate the institutional look of police stations and emergency rooms.

The four-person cast handles their challenging tasks with remarkable aplomb. Alina Stiegler is strangely compelling as Clara, who despite her blasé attitude, is nobody's fool, and Christoph Gawenda is incisive as Clara's bored husband, that unsympathetic policeman, and Clara and Eddy's beaten-down, unaffectionate mother. But the piece hinges on the performance of Laurenz Laufenberg, who takes us inside Eddy's ravaged soul as he struggles to find a way out of debilitating trauma; he has an excellent partner in Renato Schuch as Reda, who presses his case with a seducer's charm only to explode when his masculine dignity is threatened. Their climactic dance of near-death is almost unbearably tense.

Class anger, homophobia, xenophobia, and self-hatred -- phenomena that seemingly define the daily news -- constitute the layers of the violence unleashed when two loners reach out to each other, unaware of the hatred in the air they breathe. There is a great deal more to History of Violence, including Eddy's critique of prison as a solution for Reda and his radical response to the aftermath of the event -- which, interestingly, has a surprisingly Christian aspect, even if it isn't named as such. In its attempt at finding meaning in such a hellish experience, the piece anatomizes the hatreds that are reshaping the modern world -- and which, if left ignored, threaten to poison us all. --David Barbour

(19 November 2019)

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