The Schaubühne Berlin production of Returning to Reims addresses fascinating material—the evolution of French political life in the 20th century, notably a working class that was heavily communist in the 1920s to one that increasingly embraces the right-wing National Front of Marine Le Pen. Examining the political migration from left to right should appeal to anyone following current events, but the static execution of Thomas Ostermeier’s densely worded production hampers the dramatic resonance of the subject.
For roughly 45 minutes, Returning to Reims is barely more than a voice-over to a documentary based on the 2009 autobiography of the same title by Didier Eribon, a French philosopher. Katy, an actress, enters and begins to prepare for the voice-over. She briefly meets the documentary’s director, Paul (Bush Moukarzel), and Toni (Ali Gadema), who is providing the studio; they sit in a control booth to the side. She then begins with Eribon’s text, which outlines his estrangement from his parents and siblings, and his return to Reims, the cathedral city, after many years’ absence:
New streets have been laid down, lined with identical houses, built in groups of two. Most of these are public housing; their tenants are far from rich. My parents lived there for twenty years without me ever making up my mind to go see them. I finally found myself inside my parents’ small house only after my father had left it, my mother having found him a place in a nursing facility for Alzheimer’s patients. It was only once he was no longer in the house that it became possible for me to undertake this return voyage, or maybe I should say, to begin the process of returning.
On a large screen behind Katy the audience sees the documentary itself. The images vary from views of the homes of the working classes to a glimpse of Gothic spires from a moving train to scenes of Eribon visiting his mother and reviewing snapshots from his youth or attending the opera with a younger male companion. (It is Eribon himself who appears in close-ups occasionally, and not an actor, lending veracity to the documentary, which is persuasively directed by Ostermeier and Sébastien Dupouey. It incorporates a wealth of historical film that must have required tremendous effort to compile.)
However, Eribon talks about his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality, a key to his estrangement from his life in Reims, so it verges on idiotic for the director Paul to enlist a woman to read Eribon’s words. Doesn’t he realize how insulting it is to feminize his gay subject’s voice, given that Eribon’s anguish with his identity is dwelled on? Even with the superb diction of Germany’s Nina Hoss (star of the terrific 2014 film Phoenix) as Katy, it feels wrong—although, like Vanessa Redgrave, Hoss is so expressive in every moment that you can barely take your eyes off her. By turns Katy shows confidence, uncertainty, intellect, bemusement and spunk. But none of the characters seems to have a life outside the room.
After 45 minutes, Katy notices a cut passage in the text, queries it, and Paul comes out to discuss the issue. Toni is irritated at the delay. There seems, finally, a promise of conflict. In short order Paul and Katy square off, and the session is suspended until the following week. When it resumes, Ostermeier has Paul suddenly break the fourth wall, soliciting the audience’s input on some rap that Toni does before Katy arrives. When she returns, she alone seems not to acknowledge there’s an audience. It’s a bizarre disconnection.
The polemical script is certainly timely, encompassing issues of sexuality, class, race, migration, and politics, notably the crisis the left now finds itself in:
If a time comes when those in whom you have placed your confidence seem no longer to deserve it, you place your confidence in others. So whose fault is it that the meaning of a we undergoes a transformation such that it comes to mean the French as opposed to foreigners, whereas it had used to mean workers as opposed to the bourgeoisie?
As if that weren’t weighty enough, ultimately environmentalism is drawn in, as Katy relates the history of her own family and a father who started out a communist from the working class, eventually was expelled from the party for challenging union racism, and became a founder of the Greens (it is, in fact, the story of Hoss’s father).
“The question I’m always asking is: can you change the system from the inside, or do we need to abandon the system completely?” Paul says at one point, but the piece, which has no writer credited, can’t comfortably synthesize its disparate elements. Returning to Reims is too much a collage of visually arresting pictures, personal history and often deadening didacticism. It doesn’t escape the feeling of a lecture hall.
The Schaubühne Berlin production of Returning to Reims runs through Feb. 25 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water St., Brooklyn). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, which start at $35, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit stannswarehouse.org.