Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Festivals, Stage

Sex, violence and working class neglect: director Stewart Laing on ‘The End of Eddy’

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When Édouard Louis’ debut novel The End of Eddy was published in France in 2014, it immediately caused a sensation. Written when he was just 21, the book is a bracing, barely fictionalised account of the author’s experiences as a gay child growing up in impoverished rural France. It’s a childhood partly defined by rampant homophobia and violence, including from his own family.

Written with immediacy and not without empathy, the book seemed to capture something of the shifting political times – a propulsive scream from within one of the burgeoning number of post-industrial communities across Europe increasingly turning to far-right politics.

The book caught the eye of Scottish theatre director Stewart Laing, who joined regular collaborator Pamela Carter in adapting the novel to the stage. Collaborating on an adaptation, which lands at the Malthouse Theatre tonight thanks to the Melbourne International Arts Festival, was attractive for a few reasons, Laing says, the book’s exploration of class politics chief among them.

“He’s talking about this situation where the left has moved so far to the middle, because they want the middle-class vote, that the working classes are completely abandoned. They don’t have any political party listening to their specific problems.

“It just felt very urgent, very now. [Pamela and I] are both from working class backgrounds, but I think we’d both identify as living middle-class lives now. So, from that perspective it felt very pertinent.”

“Some of the issues Édouard talks about, you just don’t see a lot of it in young people’s theatre. It doesn’t really deal with sex, or sexuality, or the extreme violence that’s in the book.

Over the course of the novel, Louis recalls the violence, sex and poverty that surrounded him, often in straightforward detail. He eventually secures a ticket out, and in doing so “embraces the idea of being a class traitor”, as Laing puts it.

“It was drama school that got him out of Hallencourt,” he says of Louis’ hometown. Indeed, the novel is “saturated in theatre. There’s a bit in the book where he dresses up in his sister’s clothes, and talks about doing a performance for an audience of one, himself.

“The way he performs masculinity too, the way he thinks like, ‘If I rehearse masculinity, I will become a masculine man’. There’s a lot about performance there.”

Laing and Carter took the idea to London’s Unicorn theatre, which specialises in making theatre for young people. In an intriguing departure from the source material, the result is a work that has been created for an audience of 16 to 18-year-olds first and foremost.

“Some of the issues Édouard talks about, you just don’t see a lot of it in young people’s theatre. It doesn’t really deal with sex, or sexuality, or the extreme violence that’s in the book.

“We all know that young people, under the age of 16, have sex with each other. We know that they do, but nobody talks about it. The theatre certainly doesn’t talk about it.”

Two actors – in this case James Russell-Morley and Oseloka Obi – play a variety of roles, including Eddy and, thanks to four TV sets on-stage, various members of his family. They even play variations of themselves, commenting on the action and creating in-show footnotes in the process.

“We have a bit of outside analysis, trying to explain what’s going on,” Laing explains. “Rather than using material directly from the book, we have the actors describe the village, just using information from Wikipedia [for example].

“As for the politics, well Édouard wasn’t writing his book for a young audience. So, there are a couple of points in the play where we step outside it, and try to join up the politics of it. He can take his time to do it, in the book.”

The novel rather brilliantly connects the events Louis narrates with the broader political structures influencing them, often across a single paragraph or sentence. In one particular instance, he writes of his burgeoning attraction to the bodies of the other boys of the village, which “already bore the marks of their social class, where beneath the smooth, milky skin of children, adult muscles were starting to form, already developed because of the time spent helping their fathers chop and stack wood…”

Laing says both he and Carter have been conscious of using a particular care towards the sex and violence in the book. But they recognise that without it, the play wouldn’t make sense.

“When we started talking about it, [Pamela] said, ‘I don’t want to write a play for two white boys…And I was like: ‘Yeah, I respect that.’ ”

“If you’re making a piece of theatre about somebody called Macbeth, nobody cares what slur you fling at him. But it felt that because Édouard is a real human being who exists in the world, we had to be really respectful. [But] we wanted to be clear about the politics, and we definitely didn’t want to shy away from the sex in the book.”

They’ve also taken a consciously diverse approach to casting the two leads. “When we started talking about it, [Pamela] said, ‘I don’t want to write a play for two white boys’,” Laing says. “And I was like: ‘Yeah, I respect that.’ ”

“The Unicorn Theatre serves the schools in central London. That is a very diverse group, and it felt to us that putting two white actors on stage, half the audience would automatically go: ‘Who’s story is this? It’s got nothing to do with me.’

“A lot of this story is not specific to white boys growing up in the north of France. It’s a bigger story than that.”

The End of Eddy plays the Malthouse Theatre until October 20. Tickets: $42-$62, festival.melbourne

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