Photos – Pia Johnson
Based on Peter Carey’s 1981 novel, Tom Wright’s new stageplay is the third in a line of adaptations of Bliss that include Ray Lawrence’s cult film version in 1985, and the 2010 opera by Brett Dean and Amanda Holden, directed by Neil Armfield. Within this nexus of lateral moves from one medium to another, Matthew Lutton’s direction and Wright’s script choose to focus on the spoken word and the actor’s power to craft the imaginative framework of Carey’s magic realist fable, rather than lean into some of the story’s more outlandish imagery via elaborate stagecraft.
That said, this visually stripped-back production does employ Belvoir’s first use of a fully-integrated stage revolve to add a degree of movement to the piece, as though to suggest a somewhat off-kilter experience for this disconcerting play, whilst also facilitating exits and scene-changes. Apart from a small transparent room on the edge of the revolve which doubles as a shed, greenhouse, offices and other structures, the set design by Marg Horwell consists largely of bare timbers, like a half-constructed house. It is perhaps suggestive of renovation, as the lead character’s life has been stripped bare to allow the possibility of being rebuilt.
For those unfamiliar with the novel or its other iterations, Bliss unfolds the tale of Harry Joy, a largely pleasant, essentially unremarkable “good Aussie bloke” with enough of a gift of the gab to have become successful in advertising by the turn of the 1980s. Although as his bitter and likely more intelligent wife Bettina points out, success for an old boy like him is hardly an achievement in the old boy’s network, when the whole system of western capitalism is designed to favour modestly talented white men such as himself. As far as Harry Joy is concerned though, the affluent lifestyle his job has afforded his wife and two teenage kids in the big city is simply a case of everything being in its proper place. Life is good for Harry… until the day he unexpectedly drops dead.
After being revived from a heart attack, Harry is a changed man. Believing that he glimpsed a wider universe with different planes of existence that include Heaven and Hell, Harry suddenly perceives much indifferent cruelty and sordidness going on around him, to which he’d previously been oblivious. His wife is adulterous and wants to take over the business, his children are dealing drugs and sex, and are neurotically obsessed with ideological extremes, while an employees brings to his attention that some of their advertising clients manufacture carcinogenic pollutants.
In what might be either a psychotic break or a divine revelation, Harry Joy concludes that when he “died” it was not his old life to which he returned, but rather has found himself in Hell. Harry descends into a paranoid state in which he believes his environment is all a carefully-crafted replica of his former existence, and that all the familiar faces populating it are in fact actors tasked with tormenting him, as one of the underworld’s captives.
Wright takes this cue to inject some particularly stage-oriented metatheatricality into the fractured reality of the piece. Characters occasionally comment about foreshadowing, or overtly say “I mentioned that in a previous scene”, or referencing the props table backstage and having the real actors’ names on the backs of a circle of folding chairs in a group therapy session. It’s nothing revolutionary, but adds a cute additional layer to the production, which acknowledges that this latest adaptation is specifically a creation for the live stage.
Act Two kicks off with Harry Joy finding himself committed to an insane asylum by his family. Although genuinely believing he may be mad, they do this less because they care for his wellbeing, than out of a fear that his odd new behaviour and suddenly conscience-driven business decisions to fire cancer peddling clients are going to lower the company profits they’ve grown accustomed to living off rather comfortably. In the mental institution the play enters somewhat Kafkaesque territory, whereby Harry finds his identity has been displaced by Alex, his employee who was initially carted off to the asylum in his place.
Alex, however, finds he rather likes the assumed persona of Harry Joy, and since he arrived under that name before him, the officious administrator who runs the facility as a business, patronisingly refuses to listen to the real Harry, dismissing any claims of mistaken identity as mere lunatic ravings. For anyone finding the existential angst of the first act a little hard-going, this extended asylum sequence provides something of a palette cleanser, with a more absurdist comedic flavour to the overarching themes of unreality and identity crisis.
Although released from the psychiatric hospital by his family for reasons equally as mercenary as those for which they conspired to put him there in the first place, Harry embraces his ambitious wife’s desire to run their advertising business, apologetically recognising her genuine talent for the first time. While seemingly willing to tolerate the venal neuroses of his wife and wayward children to which he had previously been blind, and then all too aware, Harry has resumed the life of corrupted capitalist excess he had briefly tried to abandon.
Drawn into this squalid existence with him is Honey Barbara, a cannabis-peddling hippie prostitute he’d briefly met and become smitten with, just before going to the asylum. Filled with a form of neurotic paranoia of her own regarding the sanity police, Honey nonetheless represents a form of potential salvation for Harry, embodying love and the possibility of a radical tree-change escape from the vices of the city to the idyll of nature with her commune. That is, assuming that bringing her into his urban family won’t utterly poison that possibility before it has a chance to truly blossom.
Lutton’s cast is strong throughout, with Marco Chiappi having an especially strong turn, primarily in the role of bag-of-nerves ad writer Alex, having flourished after hijacking Harry Joy’s identity within the asylum. Susan Prior is very funny in an assortment of parts including the psychiatric administrator. Anna Samson also shines in the potentially thankless role of redeeming lover-come-nature goddess Honey Barbara, adding a much needed degree of credibility to the part.
Chiefly though the cast is captained by the slyly funny Toby Truslove as Harry Joy, and the redoubtably hilarious Amber McMahon in the role of his wife Bettina, a part consciously beefed up by Wright. Tone is a key element to any play that deals in tragicomedy and anxious dark fantasy such as this, and with Truslove and McMahon’s hands on the tiller, the shifts between broad farce and emotional gravitas are deftly handled.
Bliss is an engrossing, at times confounding production, in which the epic and quotidian go hand-in-hand, in much the same way as the deceptive simplicity of its staging juxtaposes with the epic undertones. This is a domestic existential crisis of the soul, for the archetypically successful white-collar Australian male at the dawn of the booming 1980s, reexamined through the lens of the even more skeptical succeeding generation. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t fault the show for its ambition.
Belvoir and Malthouse presents
by Tom Wright | from the novel by Peter Carey
Director Matthew Lutton
Venue: Upstairs Theatre | Belvoir Street Theatre, Belvoir St Surry Hills NSW
Dates: 9 June – 15 July, 2018
Tickets: $77 – $37
Bookings: belvoir.com.au | (02) 9699 3444
A co-production with Malthouse Theatre