Left – Amber McMahon. Cover – Charlotte Nicdao, Amber McMahon and Anna Samson. Photos – Pia Johnson
Once upon a time, Harry Joy, the protagonist of Peter Carey’s first novel Bliss (1981), was comfortable at the centre of his world as a reasonably successful adman and a solid family man. In Carey’s words, ‘His great talent in life was to be a Good Bloke.’ He was affable, made people happy, had a ‘rich deep brown laugh’ and was ‘something of a storyteller’.
The novel opens with Harry suffering a massive heart attack, which leaves him ‘dead’ for nine minutes, and alters his sunny world view. He suspects he has indeed died and woken in hell. His paranoia is well-founded, it turns out, thanks to the duplicity of those around him, and a world itself under threat of destruction.
Director Matthew Lutton (Malthouse’s artistic director) and dramatist Tom Wright (artistic director at Belvoir), who collaborated on the recent production of Joan Lindsay's Picnic At Hanging Rock, again join forces to bring Carey’s bizarre mixture of unlikely characters, funny episodes, satirical comedy and idealism to the stage. Working with eight actors, some of whom take on multiple roles, they have pared down the novel to produce an entertaining three-hour show, with plenty of onstage shenanigans, while highlighting the ominous notes of the tale by translating it to the present time.
Toby Truslove portrays Harry Joy as a passive, defeated character, who stares dumbly at his interlocutors. Of course, he is not his former self, but we need to see the glory from which he has fallen. Otherwise, the play makes no sense, and we care little about Harry’s predicament. He is wearing the famous white suit, but with none of the style it once conveyed. We have no idea that once this gave him a maverick authority, a magnetic power over women, and a cachet with waiters. When his colleague Alex Duval (Marco Chiappi) threatens to take over his name and his persona, and struts about in his own white suit, the humour is somewhat diluted, since we have never had a glimpse of Harry in all his splendour.
Chiappi is the standout performer in the ensemble. A veteran of the stage, he has the powerful voice and physical presence to lift the comedy a few notches, switching nimbly between the roles of Alex Duval, the Reverend Des, and various minor parts. If he can be faulted, it is in upstaging Harry.
Wright has brought the story up to date by amplifying the theme of gender equality and giving the two main female characters, Bettina Joy and Honey Barbara, equal weight with Harry. Amber McMahon plays Bettina, Harry’s wife, with a mordant wit and blatant hostility, perfect for the woman whose ambitions exceed her husband’s and who follows her dreams of the American life all the way to New York.
Anna Samson, as Honey Barbara, the rainforest hippie who makes cash on the side as a sex worker in the city, is somewhat less convincing. However, this is partly because much of her part is written as a monologue, airing her views on the good life, another thread in the capitalist/communist face-off that was a sign of the times. The script does not allow Honey and Harry to develop a relationship, or set up his motivation to join her in the rainforest.
Screen actor Charlotte Nicdao, making her theatre debut in Bliss, is a breath of fresh air. She makes the role of Lucy, Harry’s teenage daughter, her own, with gushing enthusiasm and optimism, glorying in every twist of events and reacting to each moment with animation. Susan Prior exemplifies the traditional ‘character actor’, attacking her various roles with panache, including the strange choice of a female for Aldo, the waiter who tries to revive his old mate Harry with a bag of marijuana. Will McDonald, is convincing as David, Harry’s son, the brooding teenager who betrays his father. Mark Coles Smith juggles a challenging range of roles with a weird mix of antics and accents.
Marg Horwell’s revolving set centres on a glass box, which mirrors the actions onstage. The actors make good use of the claustrophobic box for entrance and exits, for the hellish family home and for dramatic climaxes.
Although this stage production succeeds in bringing Carey’s bizarre tale to vibrant life, it is too eager to reformulate the issues of 1981 in 2018 terms. Carey worked in advertising until he turned to writing fiction and this debut novel may have been his revenge. Harry Joy as a symbol of patriarchy is not so far from Carey’s original vision, but in the novel Harry’s point of view is the dominant one. In the play, his voice is drowned out in this sea of hectoring voices. And the hippie commune, where Harry attempts to become a ‘Good Man’ rather than a ‘Good Bloke’, has morphed into a group of characters in futuristic beekeeper suits, with nothing to recommend it.
Truslove lifts the lid on his character when he starts to tell stories, and becomes almost poetic in his final eulogy. A tender moment, but not enough to redeem his character, or the play.
Malthouse Theatre presents
by Tom Wright
Director Matthew Lutton
Venue: The Cooper's Malthouse | 113 Sturt Street, Southbank 3006
Dates: 4 May – 2 June 2018
Tickets: $35 – $72