Schaubühne Berlin’s stage adaptation of Édouard Louis’s autobiographical novel History of Violence at St. Ann’s Warehouse is compelling theater brilliantly executed. The novel is a first-person account of the author’s experience of rape and attempted murder, though in much of the text Louis quotes and intermittently annotates what he hears his sister tell her husband about what Louis had told her about the attack.
The Schaubühne’s theatrical adaptation, by director Thomas Ostermeier, Florian Borchmeyer and Louis, transfers the novel’s several voices and layers to four performers. Christoph Gawenda appears as the author’s mother and brother-in-law, as well as a police interrogator, a secondary incarnation of the author, and a homeless person. Alina Stiegler plays several roles too, most prominently, the author’s sister (costumed in a revealing leopard-patterned bustier), who insists on her own version of the facts about both their family history and the author’s violent assault. The athletic Renato Schuch, clad in a loose, white tracksuit, is well cast as the streetwise, sexy, deranged Parisian-born son of an Algerian immigrant, and he also carries some minor parts. Laurenz Laufenberg, willowy, pale, and blond, dressed in a pink sweater and with a carefully curled forelock, portrays the author. The cast is stellar, ferocious, and uninhibited.
The actors use the numerous mikes arrayed about the stage to indicate subtle shifts in the text, even within a single speech transitioning from live to reproduced sound, the mike lending a creepy intimacy to the voice–closer, too close to the ear. The actors often directly address the spectators. They sometimes wear only part of a costume, more an offhand signification than an attempt at literalism. Gawenda makes no effort to conceal his healthy mustache while playing the mother in an off-kilter wig. Though the emotions and story are convincing, the style of the production eschews mimetic representation, except in the extensive use of live video projection onto the entirety of the back wall of the stage, as the actors openly film each other with cameras on tripods and cell phones.
While a central violent incident is at the core of the tale, the novel postpones telling that part of the story while the author establishes how its meaning is framed by the different circumstances under which he relates it to the police, his sister, one friend, and then others, and how the facts are prone to mutate in the retellings.
On his way home in Paris late on Christmas Eve, the author meets a stranger on the street and invites him up to his apartment, where they have supremely pleasurable, consensual sex, after which, the stranger robs him, rapes him at gunpoint and strangles him. It’s a desperate situation that keeps the tension high while the author builds the narrative frames of his sister as storyteller or the police interrogators and medical personnel as story prompters. The violent climax is teased out to the end, maximizing the suspense like a well made policier.
Apart from the violence, various other social issues are embedded in the story: the status of homosexuals as a vulnerable minority group in a heteronormative world, the class structure (the author’s origin is working class), the endemic racism in France toward its large immigrant population (the pick-up’s North African ancestry explains to the bigoted police all they need to know about the crime), and the merciless bureaucracy of law enforcement, which inflicts its own kind of violence on the author as he is made to tell the traumatic story over and over to different officers.
The simple set design by Nina Wetzel (who also did the spot-on costumes) resembles a recording studio more than anything else, with multiple mike stands and musical instruments, although it also includes a minimal version of the author’s apartment shower, a slender table for the police station, a movable single bed for sex and violence, and two chairs and a table to sketch in the sister’s home, to which the author flees after the rape and attempted murder.
As with much contemporary German theater, History of Violence fearlessly features nudity, simulated sex, and splashing around of fluids, plus the sound system sometimes reaches punitive volume levels. An onstage drum kit and a keyboard accompany parts of the dialogue in this production. Three dance numbers intervene along the narrative path, a surprisingly successful choice in a piece about sexual assault and attempted murder. The splendid quality and inventiveness of the production in general and the fierce acting in particular are typical of Schaubühne, one of the top stages in Berlin.
At the end of History of Violence, the author offers a bit of advice on how to survive something so traumatizing. He recommends the power of narrative transformation, the healing lie: “Lies have saved me more than once.” And then he quotes Hannah Arendt: “We are free to change the world and start something new in it.”
History of Violence, in German with English supertitles, continues at St. Ann’s Warehouse (45 Water St, Dumbo, Brooklyn) through December 1.