Last year, for the first time, the names in the hat for the prestigious Louis d’Or — the sought-after award for best leading male performance in the Netherlands — included a joint nomination. The Dutch Theatre Jury chose not one but four young actors for their shared delivery of Eddy Bellegueule, the lead in a dazzling 2020 stage adaptation of Edouard Louis’ autobiographical novel.
Whether or not the four will pick up that gold medal must wait till later in 2021 when the awards are finalised (the jury is holding over some awards because of the pandemic’s impact on productions). But on January 22 the show itself is back. Toneelschuur Productions’ Weg met Eddy Bellegueule will be streamed, live (in Dutch with English subtitles), from the stage of the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, via the theatre’s streaming service ITALive.
That joint nomination is especially pleasing to director Eline Arbo, not only because it honours her young cast equally, but because it meets the spirit of her production — and the quality she sees in the original book. Louis’ novel En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule was a sensation when it was published in 2014 and has since been translated into 20 languages (including English as The End of Eddy). A painfully personal account of growing up in a poor family in the French village of Hallencourt, Louis’ book deals frankly with poverty, violence, alcoholism and the brutal homophobia he suffered as a gay teenager.
That frankness provoked a backlash from some who objected to his description of the village. But Arbo, bringing the book to stage, was struck not only by the immediacy of Louis’ style — “He writes almost like how characters in a play would think: the thoughts are created while you read” — but also by his sympathy and lack of judgment.
“He tells his own story, his coming of age and his struggle. But he doesn’t judge or condemn the people that did this to him. He says, ‘You know they are also victims in a sense. I was a victim of their violence, but they are also victims of a more systemic violence.’ He wants us to also understand the people in his surroundings: the people who have done him great harm but also loved him. So what he does for me in the book is a kind of an exercise in empathy. And this is an aspect of the book that I really wanted to bring into the adaptation.”
Arbo, an acclaimed young Norwegian director who moved to Amsterdam to study theatre, built that “exercise in empathy” into her production (for which she also won the award for best director), making compassion its hallmark. The four young actors (Victor Ijdens, Jesse Mensah, Felix Schellekens and Romijn Scholten) all play Eddy, swapping the role between them, but they also play all the other characters. It’s a way of blurring the “us and them” that can creep into political drama, says Arbo.
“In the form of the adaptation we wanted to bring this feeling that it’s not only one person’s story,” she says. “It is a story that concerns a lot of people. And this feeling of otherness, of being an outsider, of not fitting in.”
On film, Eddy’s story lends itself to intense realism and gritty footage. On stage, Arbo suggests, the task is different. It’s more Eddy’s inner landscape that she wants to evoke and the suffocating claustrophobia of feeling trapped. The actors are enclosed in what she describes as “a kind of huge plastic bag” and what audience members have seen as a cocoon or an ice-cave. It’s also a show that pulses with live music (all four actors play instruments) and with the vulnerability and febrile intensity of adolescence that Arbo feels is so vividly captured by Louis.
“It speaks to everyone, in a sense,” she says. “That’s why his books are so immensely popular, I think. And this coming of age for me — and for a lot of people — is so intimately connected with music. When I think about my youth, I kind of think in a soundtrack.”
Arbo’s childhood had its own striking quality. She grew up in Tromso, in the far north of Norway: a wildly picturesque landscape of fjords and mountains and a place where light comes in extremes (midnight sun in the summer, near constant darkness in the winter). That Arctic beauty has left its mark on both her and her work, she says. “There is a lot of respect for nature. People die every year in the mountains. You have to really have respect for something bigger than yourself, you become philosophical.”
Her youth was also dominated by politics. Her parents were very leftwing and — along with everyone in the street — would spend every weekend demonstrating. Her move into theatre was a sort of rebellion of her own: she saw theatre as a way of tackling doubts and beliefs through drama and personal story, rather than through demonstrations. “The theatre is a place where you can say something political without statements that are one-dimensional.”
The mix of the personal and the political is something she admires in Louis’ book, and many of her productions to date — Sophocles’ Antigone, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Chekhov’s Three Sisters, for instance — have focused on protagonists chafing against the system in one way or another. When I speak to her, she is in Stavanger, south-west Norway, rehearsing Schiller’s Maria Stuart for the Rogaland Teater.
“I have this fascination for people who really have another way of seeing the world and feel trapped in the system somehow — and are trying to break out,” she says.
The plan, as we speak, is for Maria Stuart to open next week. The rules are frequently revised in Norway, but the pandemic has not hit the country as hard as the UK and the Netherlands.
Back in Amsterdam, Arbo will direct an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours for the ITA at Easter. In the meantime, the company continues with live streaming (some previous successes, including Medea, Kings of War and Who Killed My Father, have already gone out). The immediate task is to convey the physical intensity of Weg met Eddy Bellegueule to audiences on the other side of a screen. They are using close-ups, says Arbo, to “get more under the skin of the actors”.
I wonder whether the isolation that many people have endured this past year might colour audience responses to the show? Arbo agrees, but she also suggests that it is the political insight in Louis’ work that might now feel most current: the depiction of alienation; the urge towards understanding.
“For me, the political things that happened this last year — with Black Lives Matter and with Trump — I think that is also very important and will maybe let people discuss the play in a different way.
“It’s easy to judge people. It’s easy to say, ‘This is insane what you’re saying and it’s all conspiracy theories’ and so on. But you have to try and understand where it comes from and that it comes from neglect from the system and from a state that has been built so that poor people stay poor. What [Louis] tries to do, which I think is very beautiful and extremely important politically, is to say we have to try to understand each other — and understand where this anger comes from.”
‘Weg met Eddy Bellegueule’ is livestreamed globally at 8.30pm CET on January 22, ita.nl