French author and sociologist Didier Eribon became politicised as a teenager in the aftermath of the 1968 protests and immersed himself in the writings of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. The ironic outcome of this was a ‘glorification of the working class, but a distancing from actual working class people and their lives.’ Returning to Reims, Eribon’s memoir, is a story – thirty years later – of re-connection, and is adapted for the Manchester International Festival by Thomas Ostermeier.
Eribon left Reims as a young gay man in response to his father’s homophobia and only returned in response to his father’s death. His homecoming prompted a reflection on his personal, social and political roots and an extended investigation into the way class operates in French society. This further developed into an analysis of the failures of the left and the shifting allegiance of the working class from communism to right wing populism. Eribon’s memoir provides a probing and detailed sociological analysis which is timely and compelling at both a personal and political level. Whether it translates into an equally compelling theatrical experience is, however, less clear.
Thomas Ostermeier’s production opens on a stage which is set as a studio. In the centre is a desk which is prepared for the recording of a documentary in which Nina Hoss will read Eribon’s memoir to accompanying video footage, projected onto a large screen backdrop. A coffee machine occasionally gurgles on a table off to one side and on the other side is a recording booth from where the documentary’s director (Bush Moukarzel) and sound engineer (Ali Gadema) control proceedings.
And that’s basically it. For two hours. It is punctuated usefully at one point by an interesting debate between Nina Hoss and the director about the impact of the visual images on the meaning of the spoken words. Apart from that, there are a few other bantering exchanges and at one point Ali Gadema treats us to a couple of entertaining raps. These interludes feel like an acknowledgement that some variation of pace is necessary, and they do function effectively to relieve the intensity. But they are just that – functional add-ons which don’t actually add anything to the piece.
Don’t get me wrong. I would probably be happy to listen to the charismatic and mesmerising Nina Hoss read the back of a crisp packet for two hours. And, as it happens, she is actually reading something which is both historically fascinating and politically important. So I am (mostly) engaged and interested. But I can’t help feeling there is an imbalance of content over theatrical interest.
There is, perhaps, a useful contrast to be made here with Fatherland (the MIF production at the Royal Exchange.) Critics have commented (not altogether unfairly) that, for all its impressive theatricality and emotional appeal, Fatherland lacks depth or analysis. Returning to Reims, however, seems to go to the other extreme: while its content is substantial, its appeal is unashamedly cerebral and it makes few concessions to the medium of theatre.