‘We’re going for belly laughs’: Jacques Tati’s Hulot masterpiece gets an all-singing climate twist

<span>Photograph: Ronald Grant</span>
Photograph: Ronald Grant

Comedy doesn’t get any more cinematic than Playtime, Jacques Tati’s 1967 masterpiece. Shot on 70mm (the widescreen format associated with such epics as Lawrence of Arabia) and filmed just outside Paris on a specially constructed city-like set nicknamed Tativille, the picture follows assorted tourists and commuters in their mishap-laden encounters with a sterile, mechanised modern world. Near-plotless and with minimal dialogue, Playtime took three years to make and helped to bankrupt its creator, who wanders through the action as his signature character, the bumbling Monsieur Hulot. Yet it remains the ultimate proof, as the late Terry Jones put it, that comedy “could be both funny and beautiful”.

With its highly detailed steel-and-glass cityscape and carousel-like traffic jams, the film is not the most obvious candidate for a stage adaptation with a cast of five. If anyone can pull it off, though, 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 leveller,” Ceschi tells me during rehearsals at a community centre in Northampton. “It shows that we’re all human and vulnerable.”

My song talks about the oceans turning to salt and the earth into coarse sand that destroys everything we’ve built

Martha Wainwright

Playtime is diffuse in its humour, with laughter rippling through separate pockets of cinemas as viewers spot different gags at different moments. For the stage version, Eccleshare says, “we’re going for belly laughs as well”. Will they use cardboard extras for crowd scenes, as Tati did in some wide shots? “That hasn’t felt necessary. Our Playtime will be like watching circus tricks. The cast are constantly, coming and going, with different props and costumes. That’s the circus element: you can’t believe they’re keeping all these plates spinning.”

This becomes apparent when they rehearse a complex scene, familiar from the film but amplified on stage, in which the occupants of two adjacent apartments seem to be interacting despite the wall between them. The stage version places a trio of performers on the right, including Ceschi, flicking through various TV channels. Their reactions to each new show (laughter, horror, surprise) correspond magically to whatever M Hulot (Enoch Lwanga) is doing on the left, in the privacy of his own room – flossing his teeth, say, or bending over to unpack a suitcase. “Tati doesn’t go that far with the gag,” says Eccleshare. “Maybe he’d think we were selling out.”

Another departure is the relationship between M Hulot and the tourist Barbara, which becomes a gentle love story complete with dance 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 pleased the show has retained the film’s 1960s setting and aesthetic. “Tati identified the constant absurdities of modern life,” he says. “And that’s what enables the company to do it now without updating it. They’ve avoided everyone having smartphones, which would be an obvious way to talk about modernity with its flipside of alienation.” As Ceschi explains, the timeless spectacle of “humans being out of step with technology brings out the comedy and the humanity”.

Wainwright hadn’t seen the film before being commissioned. “But I spend a lot of time in airports and hotel rooms that all look identical, so that rang true,” she says. As she began to write, however, she found other concerns predominating. “The unavoidable reality of our time is climate change. I wanted to represent the ability of these two characters to save the world from itself.” Her song, written in French and English, is about “what we’re willing to say goodbye to. The end of time. The things we won’t see, that we’ll never have known. It talks about the oceans turning to salt, the earth becoming like a coarse sand that will destroy everything we’ve built.” She laughs grimly. “It gets a little dark there! But it’s also written in the conditional, so everything is ‘if’ – ‘if this happens …’”

Months after first hearing the song, Ceschi still seems awe-struck by it. “Martha has 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 vital to Tati’s vision as pratfalls. “At the beginning of Playtime,” she says, “there are all these spaces, like the airport, that are very boxed in or governed by straight lines. It is only when people collide with one other that they connect.”

All of which makes the show a tonic for audiences returning to theatre after the pandemic. “We really were separate,” she agrees, “unable to bump into each other, for two years. Now we’re learning to break out of these 2D spaces and get back into the town square.”

  • Playtime is at the Royal & Derngate theatre, Northampton, until 17 September.