Lilies or the Revival of a Romantic Drama

Michel Marc Bouchard, translated by Linda Gaboriau
Brockley Jack Theatre

Production photo

The Brockley Jack Theatre was dark for a while but I am pleased to report it is now back in business and is currently presenting a play worthy of your attention.

The current offering is the UK premiere of a piece by Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard and also marks the 20th anniversary of the first production of this brilliantly constructed and compelling play.

Its qualities have been recognised elsewhere - it has been translated into several languages, won awards in a number of countries and it has been made into a film, so it is something of a mystery that it has taken twenty years for Lilies to reach our shores.

Lilies or the Revival of a Romantic Drama is a serious piece about love and revenge which also manages to include a commentary on truth and on theatre thanks to its multi-level structure.

The play is set in 1952 in the church of a prison where it has been arranged that the jailed Simon Doucet will make confession to his old friend Bishop Bilodeau. In the event the Bishop is imprisoned by Simon and some fellow convicts who act out before him scenes from a play.

It is no jolly entertainment that Bilodeau is forced to watch, but the gay love scenes from The Death of San Sebastian, which in turn are revealed to be only a part of the script that is to be presented by the convicts.

The prisoners' play takes the action back to the Quebec countryside of 1912 where Simon, Bilodeau and the Parisian newcomer, Count Vallier De Tilly, were young contemporaries. In acting out the circumstances that occurred immediately prior to Simon's incarceration, it is intended that Bishop Bilodeau will be the one to confess what he did four decades earlier that resulted in Simon's wrongful imprisonment.

To detail more about the story would be to risk giving away the ending, so enough said on that.

If I suggest that the play-within-a-play-within-a-play structure is like the layered skins of an onion it would not do it justice as the intelligence of this play goes far beyond its assembly.

By definition all the parts are played by men and true to the limited resources that would have been available to the prisoners, the costumes and props are simple but effective - they are in their prison uniforms with the addition of a hat, or at most an old curtain as a skirt.

There are no pantomime dames or drag acts, here there is acting of such subtlety that you stop noticing that the women are played by men, whilst at the same time being constantly reminded of it because the emotional entanglement that drives the action is between boys.

The configuration of the piece also requires that both Bilodeau and Simon are represented in 1912 and 1952. The result is that Simon as an adult plays the role of his father in the enactment and Bilodeau the bishop is on stage with, and having to revisit the actions of, his teenage self.

All this goes to provide additional intriguing dimensions to a play - a finely crafted love story - that also reflects and comments on the social morays of the pre-war era.

Director Joseph Walsh shows a sensitive understanding of the piece and the acting of the principals is thoughtful and moving.

Short musical backdrops, composed by Alexander Rudd, complement the piece and contribute to the atmosphere whilst lighting changes are so in-keeping as to be imperceptible.

Lilies is a thoroughly engaging piece of theatre. But it is more than that - this play is real brain food. In fact it's a feast. Go see, or go hungry!

"Lilies or the Revival of a Romantic Drama" runs Wednesdays to Sundays until 4 November

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti