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by Andrew Haydon

Manchester, 8. Juli 2017. Thomas Ostermeier's production of Didier Eribon's Returning to Reims, premièring in an English-language version at the Manchester International Festival, feels like a complete departure from all his previous work: aesthetically, politically, structurally. Even visually it seems different; Nina Wetzel’s set looks almost exactly like the answer to the question: what would an Anna Viebrock set for a Katie Mitchell production look like?

The approach taken to "adapting" Eribon's text for the stage is a simple one. We are presented with a wood-panelled recording studio in which Nina Hoss, playing a semi-fictionalised version of herself, is recording an edited version of the text for a film version of Returning to Reims. Ostermeier and film-maker Sébastien Dupouey have indeed essentially made this film, which features Eribon himself travelling again to the French town of his youth, and even sections of him talking to (presumably) his actual mother, intercut with historic footage of French Communist party rallies, and contemporary news footage. Bush Moukarzel (of Dead Centre) plays the film’s director (possibly with shades of Being Thomas Ostermeier in his characterisation).

Rueckkehr nach Reims Manchester International Festival 560 Arno Declair 6360 uStage & Costume Design: Nina Wetzel © Arno Declair Manchester International Festival

It's beautifully done and, in truth, I'd have been perfectly happy to watch this live-narrated, film version of the book for the full two hours and worried about "but is it really theatre?" later, such is the clarity of and precision of Eribon’s writing and analysis (which, for context, is barely known in the UK at all – the only English-language version of the book is an American translation distributed by MIT Press).

What is most striking, coming to all this material for the first time, is just how exactly relevant everything Eribon writes about is; not only to France, or to Germany, but also to Britain. The book’s main narrative deals with Eribon’s discovery that his former communist family had – in common with much of the French working class – become Front National supporters. Eribon isn't perhaps the first writer ever to notice that during the ‘80s and ‘90s the mainstream political left gradually severed any sort of meaningful representation of the working class. What makes his analysis so striking is – as a gay, working-class intellectual – his total rejection of his own class background, and of the violence and homophobia of his – then still left-wing – home town. This is a paradox that the production doesn't address.

Rueckkehr nach Reims Manchester International Festival 560 Arno Declair 4182 uNina Hoss © Arno Declair Manchester International Festival

In theory, this production should feel like it just missed its moment. Played in the aftermath of Brexit, it would perhaps have felt like the most depressing documentary ever made. Playing now, after the UK’s most recent election, with the absolute rout of the far-right, the signal failure of the Conservatives to gain a majority, and the unexpected resurgence of Jeremy Corbyn’s revitalised, re-engaged Labour Party, instead of suddenly irrelevant, it feels like required reading; something like a roadmap for a way out of the current disenfranchisement of the working class, and the rush of the alienated into the arms of far right populism. How it will feel in Berlin, in September, in a recast, and slightly reworked production, I can’t guess. Last night in Manchester, I can only report that it seemed (to me) like an incredibly welcome bit of intelligent thought on the subject of right-wing populism. Something that British theatre has so far entirely failed to come up with.