A book about being young and gay and bullied has been turned into theatre with a two-person protagonist, questioning his selves, writes Susan Mansfield
Melting in a London rehearsal room on the hottest day of the summer so far, Stewart Laing and his team run through the opening scenes of The End of Eddy. The production, adapted from Edouard Louis’ bestselling autobiographical novel about growing up gay in industrial northern France, will premiere at Edinburgh International Festival this week.
The actors, Alex Austin and Kwaku Mills – both of whom play Eddy (and the other characters) – run and re-run a scene in which Eddy is bullied at school. Laing watches carefully then asks them to run it again, standing closer together; the tone changes immediately. He says later: “I think if you have two people on stage, if they’re close together that means one thing, if they’re far apart that means another thing. For me it is fundamentally to do with visual choices.”
Laing is one of the Scotland’s most highly acclaimed and original directors. Both a designer and a director, and now associate director at the National Theatre of Scotland, he has worked on a broad variety of productions, from West End musicals to opera. However, his own productions, which have included Slope, Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner and The Salon Project, tend to be experimental and innovative.
Both Laing and Pamela Carter, the playwright and dramaturg with whom he has collaborated since the first production of Slope in 2006, immediately saw the potential in adapting Louis’ novel for the stage. Set in Picardy, in a socially deprived post-industrial village rife with racism and homophobia, it charts the early life of Eddy Belleguele, whose crime – as he himself puts it – was “looking gay”. What is most shocking is that this is no memoir of the 1970s; Louis was born in 1992 and was just 21 when the book was first published in France. The brutal homophobic bullying he describes took place a little over a decade ago.
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Laing quickly spotted a theatrical thread in the book. “It runs right through it,” he says. “You could say that Eddy acts the part of a middle-class person until he becomes a middle-class person. And actually that’s how he escapes from the situation he’s in [he auditions for a lycée specialising in drama in Amiens]. I think there’s something in the book about acting which propels it through, and the sort of theatre that Pamela and I often make is to do with thinking about what acting is.”
“It seems an important show to be doing in today’s current social climate,” Pamela Carter adds. “What Louis is doing is trying to understand where homophobia and violence and racism comes from, from the inside. It’s not just a standard misery memoir, there is analysis and reflection and complexities.”
The context of the novel is very much our present context: the rise of the Right in Europe, the shift in allegiance in many working-class communities from the traditional Left to extreme Right. In the first round of the last general election in France, Front National leader Marine Le Pen got a third of the vote.
“This is a personal view,” Carter says, “but I think there is a discourse around class and representation, about white working-class communities and how certain members of society are represented on stage, who does and doesn’t get to speak.
“There is a sense of a liberal middle-class – of which I’m a member – being appalled at a working-class voting to leave the EU, and communities which may have voted Left now voting Right.”
Laing continues: “All of that is part of Louis’ agenda [he wrote the book while he was training to be a sociologist]. I think he’s definitely not saying that racism and homophobia are specific to poverty, but I think he is saying that poverty forces a certain group in society to lash out at people who are worse off than they are. Also, that the Left have abandoned the working class; by moving into the centre to get the middle-class vote, they left a vacuum which the New Right swept into.”
The play is being aimed at audiences of 16 and up, having been developed with support from the Unicorn Theatre in London, which specialises in productions for young audiences. After opening at EIF, it will be staged at the Unicorn, and will tour to parts of smalltown and rural Scotland. Laing, who grew up in East Kilbride, says: “I suppose there is part of me that’s thinking, when I was 16 years old I would love to have seen a piece of theatre like this.”
Both he and Carter say that Eddy’s story struck a chord with elements of their own experience, although their lives were very different from Eddy’s. “The idea of being visibly different,” Carter says. “Being mixed race, I recognise that. And class – being the first generation in my family to go to university and that feeling of being a class traitor, the distance it puts between you and your parents.”
“It was class for me as well,” says Laing. “There are a lot of stories of gay lives in the cultural sphere, but I think this very specific, very poor context of a gay story, told from the inside, is very brave.”
Laing and Carter say there were certain things they knew about their adaptation right from the start: that there would be two Eddys, and they would be racially diverse (“Given that we’re talking racism and physical distance in UK today, I think it would be strange not to have diverse casting,” says Carter), and that there would be four television monitors on stage showing pre-recorded elements of the story. Their metal mounts echo the village’s brass metal factory as well as the four television sets in the Belleguele household.
Hearing them talk about their theatrical process, I’m aware that they’re actively looking for inventive ways to do things, investigating non-naturalistic forms of theatre which shine a spotlight on what theatre is. When I ask Carter about the decision to use the TV monitors, she says simply: “It would just be boring otherwise! Also, it prevents that naturalism, that very default mode where we fall into naturalistic modes of performance and the audience falls into naturalistic modes of watching performance.”
Even when they hit on an inventive idea, they make sure they’re using it in ways we don’t expect. Take the two Eddys. Carter says: “It’s not that we have rules that say there is one person playing one kind of Eddy and the other playing a different kind of Eddy. They are both Eddy all the time. If it feels as if it’s slipping too much towards one form, we try to do it differently in the next bit.
Laing says: “I think we wanted do something that was a conversation between two people about one person. If you have two completely different human beings on stage telling us the story of the same person, that is very exciting, that we are deliberately putting opposites together on that stage to tell the same story with the same voice.”
He adds: “I think Pamela and I both like a challenge, I think we’re not the kind of people who say, ‘Oh Pamela, I loved doing that, shall we do that again?’ We want to do something deliberately different. That is genuinely what excites us and makes us want to get in a room and make work with each other.”
• The End of Eddy is at The Studio, 22 Potterrow, until 26 August, 2pm and 7pm. www.eif.co.uk