Edouard Louis’ childhood memoir “The End of Eddy” — “an autobiographical novel” — has become an international bestseller, his recollections of growing up gay in a gray, post-industrial town striking a chord far beyond his native France. For all its specificity to a nation that’s flirted with Marine LePen’s nationalism, “The End of Eddy” contains something universal as well: an outsider’s coming-of-age story. Eddy Belleguele is an effeminate teenager battling his own internalized homophobia, surrounded by a culture of toxic masculinity. “The End of Eddy” pins down a significant sociological split — between a cosmopolitan, liberal, middle class and a working class that feels left behind in more ways than one. In an age of identity politics, it feels pressing on both personal and political levels.
Rather than dramatize Eddy’s teenage years onstage, playwright Pamela Carter’s self-aware stage adaptation presents Louis’ book itself as theater. Hyemi Shin’s design reflects the book’s world; everything’s functional and to-the-point. Upstage, a bus stop offers a sense of escape — Amiens one way, Abbeville the other — but it is here that town’s kids gather en masse, hurling insults and abuse Eddy’s way. Four flatscreen TVs stretch across the stage, reflecting the four in Eddy’s home and instilling a sense of distance from events as they unfold. Two actors — Alex Austin, the spit of the author himself, and Kwaku Mills — introduce the text and explain the show’s workings. Both stand in for Eddy, increasing his isolation by lending the impression that he has only himself for company.
But director Stewart Laing’s staging feels like a world of Eddys. Onscreen, Austin and Mills play the people around him too: Eddy’s furious alcoholic father and his chain-smoking, washed-out mother, his pent-up half-brother and the two bullies that corner him daily in the school corridors. It’s a reflection that each individual is the author’s creation, but also that they’re all on a par, each a product of this toxic environment.
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By toying with transformation in this way — the way an actor can play any part — Laing’s staging homes in on the idea of identity. Eddy can’t disguise his true self. His walk gives his sexuality away, his mannerisms, his voice. Later, at college, his clothes will betray his poverty and his class; an outsider to the last, apparently incapable of fitting in. Austin and Mills give mercurial performances, sliding in and out of the story throughout.
However, “The End of Eddy” loses a lot through such mediation. The book’s strength is its directness — the confessional quality of autobiography, a secret shared between writer and reader. It’s the sincere attempt at recollection that makes a memoir like this so powerful; the author’s effort to revisit the traumas of his or her past. The precision of that process is everything, the details of searing events as they happened, intercut with the reflection of hindsight and distance. On the page, Louis’s words catch the oppressive silence of family dinners, the smell of a bully’s spit, the pulse of shame that thumps in your head in ways that Carter’s condensed version simply can’t match.
“The End of Eddy” lives in its details, its daily recurrences, but onstage, it is trimmed down to events — not a portrait of a place and its people, but a coming-of-age tale. Such simplification makes it teen-friendly, but it also takes the hard edges off Louis’ extraordinary book.