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Bliss theatre review (Malthouse, Melbourne)

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Harry Joy, the owner of an advertising agency, is a big fish in a small provincial city, somewhere (let’s call it Brisbane) on the east coast of Australian sometime close to 1981. Death’s a wake-up call for Harry. Second-rate and seedy, he experiences visions in his nine minutes of non-being: ’worlds of pleasure and worlds of pain, bliss and punishment, Heaven and Hell’. He is inspired, he is terrified. Life – after death – can never be the same again.

Written nearly 40 years ago, Peter Carey’s provocative, prescient, dense first novel is a wild ride – funny, shocking, outrageous: it disquiets, it stings. Equal parts free-fall and fire-works, Bliss draws, with devastating acuteness, on Carey’s own experience working, from the age of 19, in an advertising agency.

The gap between image and reality was never so exquisitely rendered.

No surprise then, that the novel would appeal to collaborators Matthew Lutton (director) and Tom Wright (writer), whose previous work, (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man) has met with acclaim. But this adaptation never really finds its own form. Whole slabs of the novel are lifted – dialogue, narrative and all – and slapped down before us; as if the collaborators are so enamoured of their source material that they can’t bear to cut any of it, and they need to because as a play, it’s pretty well indigestible.

Bliss_Anna Samson, Toby Truslove_c PiaJohnson_preview
Anna Samson and Toby Truslove in ‘Bliss’

Structured in five ‘acts’ and clocking in at around three hours (including interval), the play closely follows the six sections of the original and charts the descent of Harry Joy (Toby Truslove), who wakes from death to find himself, as he thinks, In Hell. His wife Bettina (Amber McMahon), his children, David and Lucy, (Will McDonald and Charlotte Nicdao), his colleagues; all are different, wrong, fake, imposters. Actors!

What works as an hilarious device in the novel – confirming Harry’s paranoia and, as he notes, the behaviour of those ‘Actors’ around him – becomes, on stage, a rather cumbersome (and endless) self-referencing. The meta-world of the play becomes so all-consuming, that much of the text is undermined.

Marg Horwell’s set of wood-panelled walls (suggestive of office partitions) and pale wood flooring juts into the audience who are seated on either side of the stage.

Characters speak directly to the audience; though, other than in the clearly narrative passages, they seem pretty random in their choice of when and why they might do so. They have a tendency to avoid looking at those of us on the sides of the auditorium.

Situated on an off-centre revolve, there’s a large glass box/room/display case, its frame articulated by strips of coloured light (designer Paul Jackson). When lit, it rocks a vaguely, (very vaguely) ‘70s vibe – think disco greenhouse. It’s a small revolve, so it spins at quite a pace; leading to some hectic, amusing, staging, and a slightly giddy feeling in the pit of one’s stomach, as though they’ve spun the wheel too long on The Price is Right.

The space is open, clean.

Too open, too clean. It feels pristine, sanitised.

The same can be said for the costuming. The characters lack the seediness, the lipstick-smeared, cigarette-ash grubbiness, that grounds the original story.

There are, however, some fine, and funny, performances from the cast of eight – most of them playing multiple roles – and an honest attempt at gender parity in that number; though I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the ‘divvying up’ of the narrative ‘spoils’, was due to even-handedness rather than textual clarity.

As Harry, a slightly rumpled Toby Truslove moves through smug self-satisfaction to outrage, bewilderment and enlightenment.  Amber McMahon captures Bettina’s brittleness and resentment, if not her towering rage at having to hide her abilities, her ambition.

Susan Prior is fabulous in all of her many roles, but particularly strong as Mrs Dalton, the self-styled ‘pioneer in the mental health business’. Anna Samson has a sensuous warmth as Honey Barbara,  the part time prostitute, full time hippy and apiarist. Mark Coles Smith is Bettina’s American lover Joel who works at Harry’s advertising agency.

Marco Chiappi comes close to stealing the show as Billy McPhee, father to the aspirational Bettina, and her rejection of him hurts. And he also plays Alex Duval who works for the Joy agency, defiantly re-writing conference reports to reveal the truth about the company’s clients (including the soon-to-be-dumped Krapp Corporation); Alex hopes the world won’t end until after he dies.

It’s a long show and it feels it. Revolves and glasshouses aside, the staging is curiously static. For all the novel’s accuracy in foretelling, most of the diatribes the various characters indulge in (there are quite a few), come across as either polemical or common knowledge; either way, they’ve lost power. For me, the production needs to commit to either a more particular ‘80s setting – there is some small attempt at this with advertising songs and jingles played during the interval (sound design and composition by Stefan Gregory) – or rework the material to encompass more current concerns.

In Carey’s novel, Harry Joy dies three times; this production, flatlines.

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Bliss is at the Malthouse, Melbourne until June 2. Main image by Pia Johnson of L to R: Charlotte Nicdao, Amber McMahon, Will McDonald, Mark Coles-Smith

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