With his fondness for Chekhov and the odd Greek tragedy, German director Peter Stein isn’t exactly known as a comedy stalwart. Nor is the Théâtre de l’Odéon a go-to venue for rollicking vaudeville. All the more intriguing, then, to see them team up for a new production of a rare play by farce master Eugène Labiche.
Le Prix Martin came late in Labiche’s career, in 1876, as he was completing the transition from popular vaudevillian to respectable playwright; four years later, he would be elected to the Académie française. Both this shift and the change of atmosphere brought by the Paris Commune and the Third Republic are evident in Le Prix: where earlier Labiche plays are all bright, cheery movement, here a static, bourgeois sense of weariness and irony permeates a rather cynical plot.
It revolves around the ageing Ferdinand Martin and his wife, who is cheating on him with his best friend, Agénor. When Martin realises he has been played, he takes friend and wife on a trip to Switzerland, plotting to push Agénor over a cliff.
The couple at the heart of the play, however, are not the Martins but the two friends. The excellent Laurent Stocker, from the Comédie-Française, and veteran actor and director Jacques Weber turn them into a jaded Laurel and Hardy duo, with Agénor the small, nervous sidekick to Weber’s large and indolent husband. Together they relish the characters’ posturing as they go through the motions of the fallout from the affair – and their relief when, Mrs Martin having run off with her husband’s cousin, they can resume their daily game of cards in peace.
The action takes place in a black box of a set, with stylised pictures of Paris or Switzerland in sepia tones in the background, and Anna Maria Heinreich’s period costumes – Swiss gear with brightly coloured knee socks – poke gentle fun at the characters. Stein meticulously captures their tics and foibles for his first Paris production featuring an all-French cast, and provides strokes of pure comedy – as when Martin’s servant, Pionceux (Jean-Damien Barbin), is all but swamped by the trousers he has inherited from his master – but overall the tone remains a little too serious and gloomy for Labiche.
Elsewhere, ennui looms both onstage and in the audience as Labiche struggles to find a middle ground between his customary wit and lead characters in the twilight of their lives, who like nothing better than the status quo.