Returning to Reims, dir. Thomas Ostermeier; HOME, July 11 2017.
Thomas Ostemeier brings a work of creative non-fiction by Didier Eribon to life in this thought-provoking performance. A personal memoir with a political focus, the 2009 book by the French sociologist which gives this performance its title offers a penetrating examination of the social forces governing Western society. In Ostermier’s production, extracts from Eribon’s work are delivered by a captivating Nina Hoss. The Homeland star plays an actress involved in the production of a film based on Eribon’s memoir. As she reads the extracts, the multi-media film that will accompany Hoss’ voice recording is projected behind her. Both black and white and colour footage appear alongside photographs, video-journalism, and clips from a music video, all of which have been carefully selected to comment on Erbion’s text. Descriptions of the journey to reconnect with his family after his father’s death, for example, are complimented by footage of the writer himself on a moving train, while the discussion of the urban ghettos on the margins of European cities are vividly enhanced by stark footage showing the desolation in these areas.
The film is also used as a tool to highlight the ongoing and perhaps even increasing pertinence of Eribon’s ideas. Clips of Front National supporters campaigning for Marine Le Pen in advance of the 2017 French presidential election appear alongside a discussion about the demise of the Left and the rise of far-right nationalism. The widespread relevance of Eribon’s text is also demonstrated by the film’s use of political footage from Britain. Clips of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Margaret Thatcher each highlight the applicability of Eribon’s thesis to the British context, directly appealing to the audience at Manchester International Festival.
The production’s most effective use of the film, however, is in the moments where Hoss directly interacts with it, questioning the choice of footage and its relevance to Eribon’s work. It is in these moments, where Hoss deviates from her engaging vocal performance of Eribon’s text, that her character is most animated and her performance most compelling. Her thoughtful, sharp and often passionate character is neatly contrasted with the two male characters who frequently work as a comedy duo, holding up Hoss’ performance, if unable to match it.
Hoss’ ability to draw the audience in is essential to the success of the play’s final section. After critiquing the film-maker’s bleak choice of ending, Hoss narrates the story of her own father, Willi Hoss, a German radical thinker who joined the Communist party at the age of 16 and later went on to co-found the German Green Party. While this section risks appearing somewhat tangential to the already multi-layered narrative, the ease with which Hoss connects the questions and issues that governed her father’s life to those raised by Eribon’s memoir ensures that it supports rather than distracts from the play’s focus. In fact, it is in this final section that one of Eribon’s central themes is fully developed. The inextricability of the political from the personal is an idea which underpins much of Hoss’ performance. Describing the moment in which he decided to identify himself as being gay, as the point at which he became a ‘class traitor’, Eribon suggests that his sexuality offered him a means of escaping from the restrictions of his working-class background. But can we ever truly escape from the rigid hierarchies imposed by class structures? Or are we always and inevitably in a state of returning? Willi Hoss’ narrative picks up and expands on these questions by presenting an alternative trajectory to that which is offered by Eribon. Having been expelled from the Communist party, Willi Hoss was forced to re-form his political identity, ultimately founding a charitable project which worked with Amazonian tribes. Whilst Ostermeier’s production places too great a focus on Willi Hoss’ philanthropy, and as a result weakens towards the end, the thematic connections between the two main narratives strands are strongly established. The intersections between Eribon’s and Hoss’ stories highlight the interconnectivity of the political and the personal, and raise important questions about whether and how we can resist the processes of class-based domination.
In many ways, however, this production is as much about the art of storytelling and the role of discourse in politics as it is about class struggle and the future of European politics. Translating the written text into a stage production, Ostermeir and Hoss inject new life into Eribon’s work. In doing so, they reveal the power that a change of artistic medium can have on a work, rejuvenating its ideas and making it accessible to new audiences.