by guest critic Maeve Campbell
The audience enters the Schaubuhne theatre to voyeuristically inspect the inane musings of two men, protected by the glass of a recording booth at the back of a beautifully brown, wood-panelled studio. This space provides the backdrop for an extended examination of European class politics through reading and discussion of French sociologist Didier Eribon’s memoir, a surprise best-seller in Germany last year.
Accompanying this is a beautifully curated video montage of moments that have illustrated the European cultural landscape since the mid-twentieth century, as varied as Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted woman’ gaffe that lost him the 2010 UK general election, or Francoise Hardy’s music video to ‘Tous les garcon et les filles’, appropriated here as a metaphor for closeted homosexuality. In walking into an Ostermeier show, one expects confetti cannons, loud music and nudity, but this is a starkly different affair.
Sections from Eribon’s book, also titled Returning to Reims, make up much of the play’s action and is read by the effortlessly smooth and collected Nina Hoss. She is a mesmerising performer, electric enough to maintain focus through her lullaby-esque delivery of the memoir. Toward the end of the show, Hoss’s own family history is relayed as a means of making more universal concepts personal. However, the show relies on an audiences’ familiarity with a specific political landscape that could prove rather alienating to international viewers.
Ostermeier’s central point of discussion is unsatisfactorily interrogated or challenged. He proposes that working class populations, who have historically been connected to left-wing political parties, are associating with a more extreme, nationalistic right. This is not a new or particularly radical observation, and it hangs over the show without much depth of understanding. So, when the fourth wall is broken, as often happens in an Ostermeier show, and the audience are addressed in relation to an assumed collective liberal world view, which with the price of ticket for the show in mind is a rather brave assumption, the tone is shrugging rather than provocative.
The external characters, played in the English language version by Bush Mouzarkel and Ali Gadema, that exist in the discursive, traditionally theatrical space of the play are given very little to play with. They are underwritten. Much of their dialogue sounds like bad improv, stilted jokes and all. Gadema’s character is criminally underused and is the only black person onstage, predominantly presented as either bored or angry, his political agenda or engagement confusing. Gadema articulates his character’s politics through a grime performance, and although a useful tool in rousing a sleepy audience, feels like a limiting way to think about race in relation to current class politics. When Bush’s film producer character asks the room ‘who here is a communist?’, Gadema is the only person to raise his hand, yet spends most of Hoss’s narration on her father’s communist history and subsequent founding of the German green party, splayed on a velvet couch, distracted by his mobile phone.
The show has problems and is not the most thrilling of theatrical experiences, which might disappoint those new to Ostermeier’s work. However, fans of the director may well be heartened to see him playing in a new form. The show is also refreshing in its bravery to stage such simple storytelling. This is Hoss’s play, she reads beautifully, and that is worth experiencing alone.
Returning to Reims runs through 16 May.
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