Before the play begins, the performers of La Reprise are already on the undecorated stage. They mill around, sit on functional chairs behind non-descript tables, chat, and leaf through scripts. Even as the house lights dim and Johan Leysen approaches the audience, he speaks directly to us, contemplating the function of an actor and mocking the theatricality of fog machines and spotlights. It is clear that this play is going to be unconventional.
What follows is a series of ‘auditions’, which are filmed and projected onto screens for the audience with English subtitles (the play is performed in French and Flemish). A panel of supposed writers and directors ask the actors (both professional and amateur) about their backgrounds, and go on to experience and assess their boundaries: Will they kiss on stage? Undress? Hit someone? The central story itself doesn’t begin until about half an hour in. What we are seeing is theatre deconstructed: a (faux) behind-the-scenes look at the preparation, research, and production of a play. It’s fascinating, engaging, and somehow unsettling, setting up a sense of tentative anticipation. What on earth are we being prepared for?
The ‘story’ then begins, aided again by projected video, this time announcing which of the five acts of tragedy we’re moving onto. The play is in fact a recreation of a true crime: the murder of Ihsane Jarfi, a gay man who was beaten and murdered by a group of men in Belgium in April 2012. The circumstances surrounding his death were horrendous and confusing: He willingly entered a car with his assailants before they killed him and his naked body was found weeks later. Aiding in the reconstruction are recounts and testimonies from witnesses and those who were close to Jarfi – his parents, his ex-boyfriend, and even one of the murderers.
The bizarre dichotomy here is that, despite the exposure of the fabrication behind theatre, there is something startling and visceral about it all. We know we are watching the reconstruction of a brutal and devastating killing, and somehow the façade of theatre is making this more immediate and pressing than any newspaper report could. And it is arresting theatre. There is nudity, simulation of sex, graphic violence, explicit language, homophobia and references to suicide. In many ways it is reminiscent of a Lars Von Trier film, exploring death, sex, and pain while also pushing the boundaries – and exploring the fabric – of the medium (theatre in this case) itself.
La Reprise is astonishing theatre, both captivating and disturbing. It confronts a real-life tragedy whilst also exploring tragedy as a theatrical concept. Expect to be uncomfortable, mesmerised, and rightfully shocked.