Reviews Germany Published 10 May 2018

Review: Rückkehr nach Reims at Theatertreffen 2018

Behind-the-scenes: Lee Anderson reviews Thomas Ostermeier’s staging of Didier Eribon’s novel.

Lee Anderson
Rückkehr nach Reims at Theatertreffen 2018

Rückkehr nach Reims at Theatertreffen 2018

Thomas Ostermeier’s Rückkehr nach Reims is not so much an adaptation of Didier Eribon’s novel as an ever-shifting palimpsest that attempts to reckon with and reimagine the French sociologist’s text. It also marks something of a gearshift for the director himself, in that it forgoes the sound-and-fury redolent of his Hamlet and Richard III, in favour of an altogether more contemplative, thoughtful and discursive approach to its subject matter.

Set in a dimly lit, wood-paneled recording-studio, Ostermeier frames his reworking as a kind of behind-the-scenes, “making-of” – dramatizing the efforts of a documentary filmmaker (Bush Moukarzel) and to translate Eribon’s story for the screen. Aiding him in this endeavor is an actress, Katy (Nina Hoss), who has been brought in to supply a voiceover composed from sections of the novel, as well as a sound-engineer (Ali Gadema) whose main concern is when and how much he’s getting paid. Above the stage hangs a screen on which footage from the documentary itself is projected, while Hoss speaks the accompanying text softly into a microphone. Throughout the interplay of words and images, our attentions shift back and forth from the screen to the solitary figure of Hoss, who sits alone at a desk and envelops herself in Eribon’s words.

Written in 2009, Reims was celebrated on its publication as a painfully honest and penetratingly personal work, one that mixes memoir and polemic in order to examine class, sexuality and politics. Born into a working-class family of dyed-in-the-wool Communists, Eribon traces his own childhood experience of being homosexual in a hardened industrial town, moving to Paris to reinvent himself as a writer-intellectual, and his eventual return to the town of his childhood to discover that his father had pledged support to Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front Nationale party. It is Eribon’s difficult homecoming, and his reckoning with the lurch toward far-right politics represented in his father’s support for Le Pen, that prompts the novel’s reflection on the author’s own feelings of “class-shame” and the failures of the Left to address the needs of the working-class.

In choosing to foreground the process of ‘adaptation’ through the director-actor-engineer relationship, Ostermeier uses their creative differences to examine the underlying exploitation at work in the construction of the film. When Hoss halts the recording to question the directors’ decision to abridge Eribon’s text, this prompts a series of increasingly fraught disagreements that dovetail into digressions on Marx, the nature of “evil” and systemic educational inequality. There are moments when these extended dialogues become leaden and overly expositional, as if the director’s entire framework were just some thinly veiled excuse to ruminate on the book’s political arguments, rather than crafting a dramatically engaging response of them. Thankfully, Ostermeier displays enough self-awareness in the form of Gadema’s no-nonsense sound-engineer, who routinely interrupts Katy and Mourkarzel’s gabbling to remind them that time is money.

Later, when Hoss begins to recount her own father’s political journey, Ostermeier moves beyond the parameters of Eribon’s text into something altogether more personal and affirming. Whereas Eribon mines his own father’s journey to expound on the failures of the Left, Hoss’s father – the Green-Party politician and lifelong trade-union activist, Willi Hoss – becomes an expansive figure whose political commitment and unceasing drive to educate and organize answers the pessimism of Eribon’s novel with its own alternate narrative.

However, the final image Ostermeier closes things out on is an ambiguous one. As they gather around the light of Hoss’s mobile phone to watch footage of her father’s wordly endeavours, the production straddles nostalgia for the past with hope for the future. Ostermeier allows both possibilities to hang in the air as the light fades to darkness.


Lee Anderson

Lee is a writer and critic living in London. Despite subsisting solely on a diet of Marmite sandwhiches, black coffee and Marlboro Light, Lee survived the crush of academia and graduated with a first-class degree in English & Film and Theatre from the University of Reading in 2011 (a decision he has struggled to explain to his parents ever since). As well as slating work as a critic, Lee is also making work as a playwright, thus both having his cake and eating it too. He is also an Associate Artist of SQUINT theatre company.

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