Liliom is Jean Bellorini’s first production as director of the TGP in Saint-Denis. Written in 1909, it is a complicated play that willingly mingles the fantastical framework of fairs with the bleak reality of suburban living in an industrializing world. It is composed of seven sketches and revolves around Liliom the carnival barker, a handsome, likeable, indolent and dishonest enigma that people consistently try and fail to interpret.
Driven by flamboyant stage props and an energetic cast, with stand-out performances by Julien Bouanich and Clara Mayer as Liliom and his wife Julie, the play is an intensely visual and sensual experience. The giant wheel in the background of the stage suggests the industrial despair of suburban Budapest by its metallic bareness, and emphasises the beautiful strangeness of carnivals when it is lit. In the centre of the stage, a set of bumper cars connects the word of fairs and the world of industry, and embodies the mechanized fantasy that prevails throughout the play. The music is provided by a live band that flightily alternates between Slavic folk songs and raw drums struck at a fast pace.
Accordingly, the action of the play is volatile and perhaps too much so. Just as Liliom defies definition, Bellorini’s interpretation of Molnar’s classic play doesn’t seem too sure of what it wants to be. Burlesque intervals too often undercut the emotional potency of the words; the social satire is reclaimed by the cognitive distance imposed by the fantastical staging, and the parody of Christian morality that makes up the final third of the play is not as biting as in the original text.
The décor of the play is only appropriate for the first scene, but remains on stage through to the end as the vestigial reminder of a once prosperous existence: Liliom’s main concern is with its eponymous hero’s social and moral degeneration. The setting of the following scenes is described by an off-stage narrator who addresses the audience directly and never lets one forget that he is at the theatre. But while he attempts to contain the action within a recognizable structure, he fails to give it direction. Overall, Liliom is a frustrating play that doesn’t quite fulfil its potential. The visual and emotional promises of the early scenes are not sustained throughout the show, and I remained unconvinced by the ending, where Jean Bellorini’s rewriting of the original text unnaturally tames the violent dispositions of the protagonist.