Home Theatre, Manchester; Wednesday 12th July 2017
Originally published in 2009, Retour à Reims is French author Didier Eribon’s autobiographical journey back to his working class roots and his painful lament for a long-lost father who stubbornly refused to accept his son’s sexuality.
Adapted for the stage by German director Thomas Ostermeier, the theatrical incarnation of Returning to Reims is making its world premiere at the 2017 Manchester International Festival.
Sadly, Ostermieier’s adaption is muddled and somewhat confusing, eventually bordering on implausible and contrived. The reason for this is down to the structural composition of the performance.
Roughly three quarters of the show is in the form of an on-screen video with accompanying narration and music – a documentary by anyone’s standards (and a good one). Moody and atmospheric, this documentary-buried-inside-a-play artfully unfurls a fascinating story: firstly about Eribon’s personal evolution, but then slowly growing in dimension to ask bigger questions about the demise of the political left in France, and the associated rise of the far-right. In the realm of strong political documentaries rendered with artistic flair, this might not compete with the likes of Adam Curtis, but it’s cleverly done. This is the kind of film you might expect to see playing on a loop in the side room of a museum exhibition, it’ll draw you in and you’ll want to stay to see where it ends up going.
The remaining quarter of the performance is a more traditional, acted play. Set in a dilapidated recording studio, Nina Hoss plays the role of an actress hired to narrate the on-screen documentary. As she sets about her job, she hesitates and begins to query what she’s reading, eventually bringing the documentary-buried-inside-a-play to a halt in order to engage in a rather unnecessary and implausible debate with her producer about what it all means. Individual performances are all fine, but the concept doesn’t work: the performers’ comedic turns and scripted debates serve only to corrode the elegant, artistic darkness of the solemn documentary-buried-inside-a-play.
But then things then seem to take a very bizarre turn: Hoss’ character recalls stories of her own father (but it turns out this is Hoss’ actual real-life father that she’s talking about), and soon there is more video footage, this time off a mobile phone, of Hoss’ father – who it turns out was a prominent left-wing union leader who also spent time in Brazil working to improve water sanitation for remote tribes. There is no doubt that Mr Hoss’ achievements and life story would make a fascinating documentary in their own right, but in the context of Returning to Reims, it changed the whole theme of the performance and seemed to take it into a completely different direction which just didn’t make any sense.
The architecture of this performance with a one-quarter-play element just doesn’t feel right. The artistic and scene-setting strength all lies in the three-quarters-documentary element around which the majority of the performance is based, the acted element just seems to spoil the ambience and mood, so much so it ends up removing value instead of adding it.
Couple all of the above with the fact that, at 2 hours in length with no interval, the total performance became slightly tedious and uninspiring towards the end, especially after the sudden shift in theme from French politics to Amazonian water purification.
Yes, it’s true, theatre is a very left-wing place, so those in agreement with the issues touched upon in Returning to Reims will love it, and it will undoubtedly be a success. But put aside the noble worthiness of the subject matter and this is nothing more than a performance contrived to tell a majority cohort of theatre attendees what they want to hear.
This is a little gem of a documentary – one which is sadly wrapped up in an unnecessary coat of sanitised theatrical orthodoxy.