“We’re going to laugh at our stomachs”: Jacques Tati’s Hulot masterpiece takes on a melodious climatic turn | Arrange

VSomedy is no more cinematic than Playtime, Jacques Tati’s 1967 masterpiece. Shot on 70mm (the widescreen format associated with epics such as Lawrence of Arabia) and filmed just outside Paris on a purpose-built urban setting dubbed Tativille, the image follows an assortment of tourists and commuters in their rugged encounters with a sterile, mechanized modern world. Almost plotless and with minimal dialogue, Playtime took three years to make and contributed to the bankruptcy of its creator, who wanders into the action as the star character, the clumsy Monsieur Hulot. Yet he remains the ultimate proof, as the late Terry Jones said, that comedy “could be both funny and beautiful.”

With its highly detailed steel-and-glass cityscape and carousel-like traffic jams, the film isn’t the most obvious candidate for a stage adaptation with a cast of five. If anyone can pull it off, it will be Dancing Brick, aka the husband and wife team of Valentina Ceschi and Thomas Eccleshare, who trained at the Jacques Lecoq clown school in Paris. “Slapstick is such a wonderful leveler,” Ceschi tells me during rehearsals at a community center in Northampton. “It shows that we are all human and vulnerable.”

Playtime is diffuse in its humor, with laughs spreading through separate pockets of theaters as viewers spot different gags at different times. For the stage version, says Eccleshare, “we’re going for the belly laughs too.” Will they use cardboard extras for crowd scenes, like Tati did in some wide shots? “It didn’t seem necessary. Our Playtime will be like watching circus tricks. Actors come and go constantly, with different props and costumes. It’s the circus element: you can’t believe they’re spinning all those plates.

This becomes evident when they rehearse a complex scene, familiar from the film but amplified on stage, in which the occupants of two adjacent apartments seem to interact despite the wall separating them. The stage version places a trio of performers on the right, including Ceschi, flipping through various television channels. Their reactions to each new show (laughter, horror, surprise) magically match whatever Ms. Hulot (Enoch Lwanga) does on the left, in the privacy of her own bedroom – flossing, say, or bending over to unpack a suitcase. . “Tati doesn’t go that far with the gag,” says Eccleshare. “Maybe he would think we’re selling.”

Magic… Valentina Ceschi and Yuyu Rau in rehearsals for Playtime. Photography: Manuel Harlan

Another departure, the relationship between M Hulot and the tourist Barbara, which becomes a sweet love story embellished with danced interludes and original songs – one composed by Chilly Gonzales and the lyricist Pierre Grillet, the other by Martha Wainwright . Gonzales, who first saw Playtime as a child, is thrilled the series has retained the film’s 1960s setting and aesthetic. “Tati identified the constant absurdities of modern life,” he says. “And that’s what allows the company to do it now without updating it. They saved everyone from having smartphones, which would be an obvious way of talking about modernity with its flip side of alienation. As Ceschi explains, the timeless spectacle of “the man out of step with technology brings out comedy and humanity.”

Wainwright had not seen the film before being commissioned. “But I spend a lot of time in airports and hotel rooms that all look the same, so that rings true,” she says. As she began to write, however, she found other concerns prevalent. “The inescapable reality of our time is climate change. I wanted to represent the ability of these two characters to save the world from itself. His song, written in French and English, is about “what we are ready to say goodbye to. The end of time. The things that we will not see, that we will never have known. It talks about the oceans turning to salt, the earth becoming like coarse sand that will destroy everything we have built. She laughs bitterly. “It’s a bit dark over there!” But it is also written in the conditional, so everything is ‘if’ – ‘if it happens …'”

Months after first hearing the song, Ceschi still seems impressed. “Martha introduced this whole new dimension. It’s about how there are serious consequences if we don’t open our eyes and see the value in each other. Compassion is as central to Tati’s vision as falls. “At the start of Playtime,” she says, “there are all these spaces, like the airport, that are very enclosed or ruled by straight lines. It’s only when people collide that they connect.

All of this makes the show a tonic for audiences returning to the theater after the pandemic. “We were really separated, she agrees, unable to meet, for two years. Now we learn how to get out of these 2D spaces and back to the town square. »

  • Break is at the Theater Royal & Derngate, Northampton, until September 17.

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