guest reviewer: Elise Gallagher
Returning to Reims marks a new chapter for director Thomas Ostermeier. Differing from his previous interpretations including A Dolls House (2003) and Hamlet (2007), Returning to Reims is the first time the German director has adapted a text which was not originally intended for performance.
The book, Returning to Reims, was published in 2009 by author Didier Eribon. Here, he looks back on his life in the wake of his father’s death in order to observe the working-class identity he rejected as an intellect, and as a gay man. His book is a memoir and a sociological study and one in which he tries to understand the wider working class culture, and its shift from the far left of the political spectrum to the far right. However, the production itself is not weighed down with heavy political jargon and knowledge.
Returning to Reims successfully tackles the resurgence of populist nationalism in Europe and class struggle through live action performance, video, sound, and narration. Ostermeier routinely chops and changes classic texts by a means of forcing them into the current day, he mockingly references this in the production through Bush Moukarzel who proclaims, “it’s multi-layered filmmaking – it’s my style!”
The play takes place in a dated recording studio where Homeland’s Nina Hoss reads a voiceover of Eribon’s memoirs for a documentary which observes the oppression of the working class and their struggle for a political voice. In doing so, Hoss also begins to reflect on her own background as the daughter of a union leader and activist. Her performance is breath-taking. I found the use of the recording of a documentary a beautiful way to tell someone else’s story. I also found that despite the lines being diegetically scripted in the scene, they were expressed thoughtfully and effortlessly, further captivating the audience.
The use of such a multi-layered approach to the production creates a simple narrative rooted in current, topical themes surrounding notions of tolerance and social justice. The production becomes even more relevant especially when taking into account the last 12-18 months.
Light relief to the production came in the form of Ali Gadema who played the disgruntled recording studio worker. Alongside the banter he shared with Moukarzel, Gadema also delivered a rap/spoken word performance with the audience. Although it contrasted greatly with the soft and arguably lucid narration delivered by Hoss, the rap itself was used to interact with the audience. Moukarzel acknowledged that there was an audience and even joined and sat with his audience below the stage, again, adding yet another layer to the production.
I felt the addition of the spoken word piece was cleverly done as today the rise of genres such as grime give artists the opportunity to express themselves and their feelings towards many things such as the government. Grime is also commonly heralded as a voice for the working class, did Moukarzel deliberately adopt this sentiment to further drive home his message?
Returning to Reims is a highly watchable, lucid, and intriguing play which pitched the past and present day against each other and in turn, highlighted that the stage can still be a venue for political and living debate. The German directed English-language dramatisation of the memoirs of a French sociologist makes a perfect addition to the Manchester International Festival.