“There is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” goes the phrase, and while History of Violence isn’t (directly) about class, it poses a similar question: is there ethical victimhood under an oppressive society?
Schaubühne Berlin’s production of French wunderkind Édouard Louis’ autobiographical novel, now at St. Ann’s Warehouse, is a blistering work of creative non-fiction whose genius conceit comes into full view after its completion. Not that the one-act play, performed in German with English supertitles, is a chore to sit through. With dynamic theatricality and laser-sharp questions of selfhood, it is far from that. But up until this thorny, almost impossible question is posed, it remains a superbly conceived exercise in decentralized first-person narration.
But back to that complicated question of victimhood. Édouard, played with convincing trauma and heartbreaking disorientation by Laurenz Laufenberg, seems unlikely to have an answer. The play stages the author’s real-life sexual assault and robbery in his own apartment, and, though shaken, he cannot bring himself to fully condemn his attacker. If he presses charges against Reda (an eerily seductive Renato Schuch), he’d be putting yet another queer immigrant of color behind bars, and who’s to give him that right? Were the roles reversed, wouldn’t he have done the same?
His sister, Clara (a slick Alina Stiegler), is certainly pushing for him to press charges, but this might not influence Édouard, who believes himself the queer sheep of his family and rural hometown. “He secretly hoped we wouldn’t accept him,” Clara tells her husband, so that he could blame his conservative upbringing for his estrangement. But Clara is also (willfully?) forgetful of their other brother’s homophobia, Édouard charges. These tensions are spread out across time and space, with the production jumping back and forth – as well as throughout the cast – as the details of the assault come together through stream-of-consciousness monologues, police testimonies, and brotherly eavesdropping. Following trauma, these transitions from internal to external narratives claim, your own experience becomes fragmented past the point of recognition. Édouard might be speaking his truth centerstage, but Clara’s eye rolling over in the corner suggest warring interpretations.
The narrative is further refracted through live footage, shot by the performers and supervised by Sébastien Dupouey, that capture both the forensics and the emotional consequence of trauma. Director Thomas Ostermeier uses the video component to highlight Édouard’s shifting interiority, and the results are haunting without being exploitative or sentimental. The memory of Reda, in all his menace and – as Édouard ruefully points out – beauty, looms over his conscience, but so does the joy of riding his childhood bike or getting lost in a pop song.
For Édouard, these recollections are all he has been reduced to, and are what keep him from condemning Reda. If he still remembers his mother’s grim stories from her days as a housekeeper for an unpleasant upper-class family, shouldn’t he empathize with the story of Reda’s father, a Kabyle immigrant whose hard work wasn’t enough to lift his family from poverty? Édouard describes the constant reliving of his trauma as “manic talking” (which Laufenberg conveys through breathless exertion), and as Reda recounts his painful family history mid-hookup, we see a psychic kinship take shape within an unsettled conscience.
Beginning a non-linear play with the jagged aftermath of a traumatic rape is setting a time bomb, and when that scene arrives, it is startling in its lack of theatricality. This is no Greek tragedy, with all of its operatic glamour. All there is is a tidy white bed under fluorescent lights clinical enough to dispel any sense of dramatics. Emotion is reserved for the before and after, when Édouard resists the knowledge of what is about to happen, and the pain which might happen yet.
History of Violence is the sort of production that doesn’t draw attention to the strengths of the individual actors – the program lists only “Performer” next to their names, rather than specifying roles – yet would fall apart if any member of its ensemble were operating at anything less than full steam. The clear MVP here, at least in terms of stamina, is Christoph Gawenda. Constantly switching modes from the anonymous to the grotesque and back again, his transformations include the siblings’ mother, Édouard’s intrusive memory and, in a striking early scene, his body double as he nakedly stumbles through a manic attempt to scrub his apartment clean of memory.
Naked and desperate, Gawenda repeatedly slips in cadence with Laufenberg’s frenzied narration, the sound of Thomas Witte’s crashing drums (played live onstage), and the intrusive video footage screened on the wall behind them. Nina Wetzel’s set may be bare – a few chairs, small tables, a shower, and a bed – but it explodes with the possibilities, and the consequences, of the stories we all carry within us.