Writer: Didier Eribon adapted by The Schaubühne
Adaptor: The Schaubühne
Director: Thomas Ostermeier
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Returning to Reims puts the International in the Manchester International Festival. The play is adapted from a best-selling French memoir, The Schaubühne Theatre Company is German and the main actor has featured in a US thriller TV series. European theatres enjoy greater subsidy than those in the UK and so are freed from the need to produce plays that entertain a wide audience and can target niche audiences. Aside from fans of the source material and members of the company it is hard to work out the audience that Returning to Reims might have been intended to satisfy.
The framing concept for the play is that actor Katy (Nina Hoss) is hired to narrate a documentary film about author Didier Eribon based upon his autobiographical Returning to Reims. After a disagreement with the director Paul (Bush Mouckarzel) the play takes a different tone as those involved start to discuss the ways in which the left wing in politics betrayed their own ideals and facilitated the rise of the ultra-right wing and share personal anecdotes on how individuals can make a difference.
Director Thomas Ostermeier has a reputation for going to extremes- his Hamlet was a fat clown who ate mud. It may be considered radical to offer a theatrical production that seems better suited for a radio monologue or a TV documentary but it is hardly satisfying. With another company, one can imagine that the framing sequence, in which excerpts from the source novel are read aloud while video images play, would be short and that the bulk of the play would be the debate between the characters . But tonight nothing is brief- a full hour is devoted to reading excerpts from the novel. Yet there is a lack of passion in the reading almost as if the company are completing an obligation to feature the extracts rather than trying to convey the author’s bewilderment at the political direction taken by the working class from which he originates.
The company allow themselves an intermission (the audience doesn’t get one) and slip out of character; chat to patrons and Ali Gadema sings a pair of rap songs. It adds to the sense of The Schaubühne being a very democratic company in which everyone’s ideas are accepted even if they do not really fit the concept. Care is taken to bring the play bang up to date and expand the range of concerns beyond France with references to a ‘Money Tree’ and the riots at the G20 meeting.
Throughout the monologue, Sebastien Dupouey’s video images of decaying French urban housing estates and TV programmes and home movies featuring Didier Eribon play in the background. It does at least add some texture to a very static first Act but the use of filmed images in live theatre always feels like cheating. After the’ intermission’ efforts are made to widen the range of the play by featuring images from the UK but these seem a tad obvious – Tony Blair as a symbol of how the Left Wing sold their ideals.
It is hard to shake the sense of self-indulgence in Returning to Reims. The closing sequence in which actor Nina Hoss steps out of character to share her personal anecdote about a relative who managed to make a difference while remaining true to his beliefs ought to be inspiring but goes on so long ( even featuring home movies) that impatience sets in.
Returning to Reims is a trailblazer for The Factory where Manchester International Festival hopes to set up home in the future. Hopefully by the time the venue is up and running more self-control will be exercised in the productions.
Runs until 14th July 2017 | Image: Jonathan Keenan