Eugène Labiche, that master of slapstick comedy, is back at the Comédie-Française with Un chapeau de paille d’Italie (An Italian Straw Hat), and if the laughs it gets are any indication, this 1851 play is not showing any signs of age. For all his jokes and puns, Labiche isn’t easy to get right: too forceful, and it sounds coarse; too lightly done, and it loses momentum. He is in good hands with Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s new production, however, because Corsetti allows the excellent cast to run with the comedy.
The story is delightfully farcical: on the day of his wedding, Fadinard finds his horse chewing a straw hat while its owner, Madame Beauperthuis, is busy hiding with her lover. A jealous husband means that she can’t go home without the accessory, and much confusion ensues as the couple force Fadinard to hunt for a similar hat with the wedding party hot on his heels. With its procession of clueless characters and misunderstandings, it is textbook, ingeniously crafted vaudeville.
And the Comédie-Française troupe takes to the genre like few. Labiche has been in their repertoire since the 19th century, with 17 plays staged over the years, and the cast milk every sentence and absurd situation with an unerring sense of rhythm, all the way to the slightly weak unravelling of the plot in the last act. Only the singing, a fixture of vaudeville when the play was written, grows tiresome, despite a festive score by Hervé Legeay for two guitarists and a violinist, which blends rock and Romani folk influences.
The 1970s-style setting chosen by Corsetti means bell-bottoms for the men and psychedelic sets. The designs are at their best when they simply emphasise the comedy, however, and the Baronne’s home is a case in point, with trompe-l’œils that add an unexpected visual dimension to some of the lines.
Among the actors, Pierre Niney and Christian Hecq in particular hold the play together as Fadinard and his father-in-law. On stage nearly non-stop, Niney, a rising star in France, is a whirlwind of physical energy with impressive range, at once charming and pathetic. Hecq barely needs to speak to have the audience in fits of laughter: his flair for slapstick was already the highlight of Feydeau’s Un fil à la patte two years ago, and he turns provincial nurseryman Nonancourt into a hilarious doofus with a paunch, twitching and wiggling his way through cartoon-like quirks.
It doesn’t hurt that this new production is performed in the beautifully simple Théâtre éphémère. Since the Comédie-Française’s main stage is currently undergoing renovation, the troupe performs in this purpose-built theatre erected next door in the Palais-Royal Gardens. Made entirely of wood, it is a refreshing space for creation, but sadly the company has no plans to keep it beyond the reopening of the Salle Richelieu.