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Theatre in Review: Returning to Reims (Schaubühne Berlin/St. Ann's Warehouse)

Nina Hoss. Photo: Arno Declair

The most stimulating play to be seen in New York in months is almost entirely devoid of action; it mostly consists of an actress recording the soundtrack of a documentary film. When that actress is played by Nina Hoss, star of the films Barbara and Phoenix and a recurring character on the Showtime series Homeland, you're ahead of the game; she has the uncanny ability to make the subtlest vocal inflection resonate with meaning. But Returning to Reims exerts a grip all its own, in no small part because it speaks volumes about how we ended up in the current rancid political climate, a dystopia shaped by the likes of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and the rest of their huckster gang.

Katy, the actress, and Paul, the director, are working on a film based on the book Returning to Reims, by Didier Eribon. An academic and literary star in France, thanks to his biography of Michel Foucault, Eribon was raised in a working-class family in the city of the play's title. It was a borderline-squalid existence in a cramped concrete block apartment with parents who both toiled in factories. Eribon, who is gay, suffered at the hands of his homophobic father; with the help of his mother, he got out at the first possible moment. He stayed away for twenty years, refusing to see his father even when the old man was dying. "I didn't love him," he writes. "I never had. I had known that he only had months, and then days, to live, and yet I had made no effort to see him one last time. There was nothing between us, nothing that held us together." (The stunningly limpid translation is by Michael Luce.)

And yet, following his father's funeral, which he didn't attend, Eribon found himself repeatedly visiting his mother, with whom he still shared a connection. These return visits cause him to probe more deeply, and, in the first of three passages that make up the structure of Returning to Reims, he challenges the narrative he has constructed for himself, that the discovery of his sexual nature was the wedge that permanently separated him from home. Eribon, who is sixty-four, came of age in the nineteen seventies, a time when coming out was more than reason enough to get disowned, shunned, or otherwise considered beyond the pale. Still, he comes to understand that his embrace of an intellectual career may have been the deepest reason behind the split: "I was a class traitor, one whose only concern was to put as much distance as possible between himself and his class of origin, to escape from the social surroundings of his childhood and his adolescence."

Thinking long and hard, for perhaps the first time, about his father, whose scorn and drunken rages he grew up fearing, Eribon now sees him in a new light. Born in 1929, his father spent the years of the German Occupation foraging daily for food to feed his family. Even without the war, life was a struggle; thanks to the bourgeois Roman Catholic mentality imposed on the working class, Eribon notes, "It wasn't unusual for families in the houses close to that of my grandparents to have fourteen or fifteen children." He describes the family's deep allegiance to the Communist Party, admitting, ironically, that his own Marxism was "a vector a kind of social disidentification; I glorified the 'working class' in order to put more distance between myself and actual workers." Other facts further cloud his once-clear vision of himself: "I had a moment of stupefaction not too long ago when I learned that when [his father] saw me on television one day, he broke down in tears, overcome by emotion." He meditates on the role of culture as a class divider, noting that the satisfaction taken in enjoyment of literature, art, music, and theatre expresses "the social joy that results from belonging to the privileged world of those who can appreciate 'refined' forms of artistic expression."

This is extraordinarily rich material, a banquet of ideas and emotions, and if Hoss initially seems an unusual choice to be voicing the words of a middle-aged gay Frenchman, her astonishingly deft handling of the text effectively tables all such questions. Without raising her voice, she expresses the subtlest of nuances, conveying the progression of Eribon's argument with exemplary lucidity. There is considerable wit in her performance, too, especially when tussling with Paul about cuts to the text and his decision to accompany a passage about the National Front with images of left-wing demonstrators. (His approach is "multilayered," he claims; always smiling and courteous, she nevertheless makes short work of that argument.)

Returning to Reims continues to deepen as, in the second section, Eribon explores how so many members of the French working class, who were once solidly Communist -- a political affiliation that, in its heyday, had nothing to do with Marxism as practiced in the Soviet Union and its satellite nations -- have, more recently, embraced the National Front, with its racist and nativist leanings. In a quietly scathing passage, he takes note of the repackaging of labor-left parties across Europe as middle-of-the-road, business-friendly movements. (Think Tony Blair's New Labor, or the government of Gerhard Schröder.) If such an approach proved a winner at the ballot box, it has left large swaths of each country's population feeling disenfranchised, making it easy for proto-Fascist parties to win them over. As Eribon says, "Whole sectors of the most severely disadvantaged would thus shift over to the only party that seemed to care about them, the only one that offered them a discourse that seemed intended to provide meaning to the experiences that made up their daily lives." (France, of course, dodged the bullet of Marine Le Pen, but whatever you think of Emmanuel Macron, he isn't the answer to a socialist's prayer.) Some have commented that Eribon's ideas are similar to those expressed in J. D. Vance's book Hillbilly Elegy. I haven't read it, but his thesis is surely the best explanation extant of how some American working-class voters, having backed Barack Obama twice, could support Trump.

The third section of Returning to Reims departs from Eribon altogether. Katy, realizing that the film ends with a call for the left to create an entirely new rationale for itself -- a goal that, she insists, seems unrealizable in the short term -- recalls her father's multiple careers as a union organizer at the Daimler plant where he worked -- founding a new union that included "guest workers" from other countries; helping to found the Green Party; and, later, disillusioned with party politics, working to save the Amazon rain forest while also addressing the poverty of the natives who live there. (These events are drawn from the life of Hoss' late father, Willi, in his day a noted politician; in one especially gripping passage, she describes how, as a young man just after World War II, he was smuggled into East Germany, where he spent two years studying Marxist theory.) In the Amazon, she adds, "Everything came together, all the things he had done in his life; he trained people to work together to find solutions for their problems and not to wait for a messiah."

As an analysis of the decline of the left in Western Europe (and, by extension, in the US), Returning to Reims, as directed by Thomas Ostermeier, has a breadth of vision that is unmatched by any other play currently in New York. In addition to its acute political analysis, it is a deeply moving look at the way families can be sundered by impassable divisions. And as the left -- in France and elsewhere -- struggles to provide a coherent message, it forces us to consider the question of the future of leftist politics. In addition to Hoss, who effortlessly rivets one's attention throughout, there are solid contributions from Bush Moukarzel as the equally charming -- and overbearing -- Paul (in an especially amusing sequence, he mansplains to Katy the meaning of "mansplaining") and Ali Gadema as Tony, the film's bellicose sound mixer; a musician, he also offers a pair of hip-hop numbers, adding to the discussion the sound of today's most populist music.

The production design -- Nina Wetzel's sound studio set, Erich Schneider's lighting, and the sound by Jochen Jezussek -- are all solid, but the action is necessarily dominated by the film, directed by Ostermeier and Sébastien Dupouey, that accompanies Katy's narration. Eribon himself appears in many scenes, as does his mother. A series of black-and-white photos of prewar housing developments present indelible images of working-class living conditions at the time. Footage of the demonstrations of 1968, that seminal moment in French politics, conveys a sense of a nation in upheaveal. A very funny film of the pop star Françoise Hardy, singing one of her hits on an amusement park ride backed by two girls, their skirts billowing in the wind, cues Eribon's remark that one of her songs "seemed to have been written to describe the loneliness of young gays." A scene from Jean Cocteau's film of Beauty and the Beast, starring his lover, Jean Marais, helps to illustrate the very different attitudes toward homosexuality expressed by Eribon's parents. Footage of the moonshot and the Vietnam war is underscored by Gil Scott-Heron's scathing "Whitey's on the Moon." The British Labour politician Gordon Brown is seen in a disastrous encounter with a disaffected voter. And we see Willi Hoss at several stages of his career, most notably as he travels up and down the Amazon, making friends with the natives and helping them to clean up their water supply.

Anything but a dry lecture, despite its format, Returning to Reims engages the audience with its ideas and images, all of which seem newly relevant. As all three characters gather around Katy's phone to look at photos of her father -- who may have been at his most effective when he abandoned party politics to work on his personal mission -- the show ends with a quiet fadeout. Nevertheless, the question posed by this brilliant piece lingers: Where do we go from here? -- David Barbour


(12 February 2018)

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