Entering into the unique space of St. Ann’s Warehouse, we find ourselves settling in to our seats as two men (Bush Moukarzel, Ali Gadema) settle into the sound studio office on stage. They talk in the casual uninteresting way two technicians who are about to do the simple task of work would chat, mostly, it seems, about good coffee. And as they head out of the recording room to find that caffeinated stimulus, a young blond actress (Nina Hoss) enters. It’s obvious that she is the talent who these two men have been waiting and preparing for, but what is she there to record?
The scene is a well structured setup, especially those magnetic first few moments of her quietly reciting her lines in a seemingly solitary moment. The environment gives off a wondrous air of confessional (set/costume designer: Nina Wetzel; lighting: Erich Schneider), inviting the discussion and debate that will follow. I was, on entering, unaware and unknowing about the philosopher and writer, Didier Eribon, and never heard of his book, Returning to Reims that this play revolves around. Director Thomas Ostermeier’s staging of this memoir pulls us in deep, almost from the moment Hoss (‘Homeland’) begins to effortlessly speak into the microphone, reading from her script with a compelling and thoroughly engaging tone of voice. The three have come together to record a voiceover for a documentary based on Eribon’s writings. Images from the film are projected on the back wall, and we watch with utter amazement as we see the process of image, idea, and the spoken word melting into one another before our eyes.[The documentary film is directed by Sébastien Dupouey and Thomas Ostermeier, with Dupouey, Marcus Lenz, and Marie Sanchez on camera, editing by Dupouey, sound by Peter Carstens and Robert Nabholz, music by Nils Ostendorf, sound design by Jochen Jezussek, and documentation by Laure Comte and BAGAGE (Sonja Heitman, Uschi Feldges). Jake Witlen and Sabrina Brückner served as live system engineers, and Stefan Nagel and Annette Poehlmann production managed.]
At first this piece feels personal; about a man returning to his Reims home to reconcile with his mother and himself after his father’s death. Hoss narrates Eribon’s difficult journey towards awareness, revolving around his deep personal shame and discomfort with his familial roots, especially in regards to the isolation that grew out of his father’s homophobia and his difficulty accepting that his own son in all the ways he is different. The intensely personal exploration of detachment and estrangement is completely palpable, real, and very relatable, especially for this gay man. Within his beautifully poetic language, Ebiron then adds the shameful layer of self-reinvention into the separating world of Parisian intellectualism and artistic elitism that conflicts and solidifies a wall between him and his poor working class parents. The act of confession and his attempt for reattachment is monumental and profound to many of us in the audience who also find themselves disconnected in the same manner, whether it be sexuality, intellectualism, or class, from their small town roots. We are reminded of the “naked violence of exploitation’ that exists within our unbalanced class-based environment. Ebiron and the documentary vibrantly shines a strong and harsh light on the physical and emotional cost of the poor being worked into the ground, and the scars left by and on the children that leave for the big and more exciting worlds of Paris, New York, or what ever other city allows escape.
But then there is a shift. Hoss, as the well-spoken actress, shifts her stance from speaker to commentator as she starts to question Moukarzel’s choices and edits within his film. The piece shifts to something more in the realm of political idealism, rise of nationalism, and the political left’s slow attempt to distance themselves from the working class people they once embraced. There is a compelling and thought-provoking discussion on the forces of ‘evil’ and/or the systematic oppression of the working class and their access due to greed and the desire by the 1% to hold on to their power. The documentary starts to focus more and more on the politics of the working class people of Europe and Ebiron’s own family, that were once proudly communist, running into the arms of right-wing organizations, like the French National Front, as the liberals begin to disregard their base. The documentary-within-a-play asks a very serious question that should resonate around the globe, “When did the causes of the Left change from defense of the ‘oppressed’ and ‘allegiance to revolution’ to ‘economic security’ and ‘personal responsibility’ of the poor and disenfranchised?” and how much of this can be blamed on the working class children, like Eribon himself, who renounced their class for the intellectual freedom of middle class and big city elitism?
A living debate on the uncoupling of identity politics from class structure starts to form before our very eyes, and the stage shifts from a working environment into a heady discussion about change and the hypocrisies and failures of the European neoliberalist left to hold onto the language of the people they say they represent. As populism gains steam around the globe, something we are frighteningly all too aware of in Trump’s America, we watch these characters attempt to understand through debate what exactly is happening and what can be done in the international world of political activism. Their concern floats around a disconcerting fear of what exactly is systematically grabbing hold of our contemporary society and pushing them towards this complex and unsettling embrace. And what can be done to change that flow.
It’s a deep and thoughtful conversation, one that at moments throughout the second part began to lose me in its heady discourse of international politics and theory. The discussants start to interact directly with us through an odd performance of rap (sound: Jezussek; music: Ostendorf) and some confessional dialogue and eye contact. I imagine that the production hoped this engagement would keep us connected to this ever increasingly intellectual questioning of social inequality, ‘evil’ forces, deracination and the parallels within our modern world. But alas, I was beginning to get lost in the fog of theory and idealism. Hoss’s character starts to recount her own father’s history of political reinvention from communist to Green Party revolutionary in Europe and South America. This confessional moment, through personal home videos and photos projected from her iPhone onto the back wall, attempts to pull us back into the realm of the personal and magnetic. It doesn’t quite work though, as I found myself longing for the return to the more interpersonal dynamics of family, class, and reconciliation.
Presented jointly by Schaubühne Berlin and St. Ann’s Warehouse, these concepts and concerns swirl all around the world we inhabit, ready and open for discussion and dissection. They ring true most compellingly in this fascinating and adventurous staging of a complex book being read to us in such a straightforward manner. It’s almost shocking how this creative team has found a way to present a reading of such intense and high minded philosophy within a theatrical framework and find a way to keep us personally invested. Unsure where we are in terms of theatre creationism and true reality (I believe Hoss is actually talking about her real father, and not a scripted creation), Returning to Reims falters a bit in the end, losing its connection to Eribon’s writing, and leaving us feeling disjointed and lost, as if the argument and discussion got too big for the room to thoughtfully debate. But such is the nature of the complex and frightening world we live in politically and socially, with most of us intellectually confused as to how we find ourselves stuck in the dynamic arguments of the day.
In an interview with The Guardian, Hoss says, “Neoliberalism has managed to take away the safety net underneath people’s lives – and convinced them that, from now on, it will be entirely their own fault if they fail. If there is ever going to be a revival of the left, it’ll be because they have managed to fill that space and regain trust. I don’t have any solutions. I only have questions. And yet I am oddly optimistic. Playing allows us to expand reality. By playing we can explore, exaggerate and sharpen ideas with great freedom and thus reach some sort of insight. Thinking and doing are important, but only art allows us to break down borders in our imagination.”
There is no easy out or solution to be had, except to hope, maintain our optimism, and proactively move forward towards a greater systematically inclusive political stance that can create a more fair and balanced world. Is that too much to ask for? I sure hope not, and neither, I think, does Ebiron. Now I need to go read his book, and, above all, #Resist.
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