Thursday, 10 May 2018

BLISS by Tom Wright, based on the novel by Peter Carey - Malthouse

Toby Truslove & Anna Sampson in Bliss
Photo: Pia Johnson
Harry Joy is dead but not for long. He’s quickly revived into a new life, one that resembles Hell or an advertising company pitch meeting. Or maybe it was like that all along?

Based on Peter Carey’s debut novel from 1981, playwright Tom Wright and director Matthew Lutton have teamed up again – after Picnic at Hanging Rock – to adapt a classic Australian book to the Malthouse stage.

But where Picnic was sleek, sharp and focused, Bliss is leaden and long.

The early introductory scenes felt like Wright and Lutton were aiming for a poetic companion piece to their Gothic melodrama, with interlocking monologues picking apart the kind of Australia that is only reminisced about. Bliss is set in the 1980s, in the suburbs of Sydney. The costumes allude to the decade without being a parody of it. The local references evoke the era.

As Harry stumbles through this newly recognised Hellish existence, we’re treated to some wryly amusing meta-theatrical nonsense; he thinks his family are actors and he’s trapped on a revolving set. But embracing a Brechtian approach to Harry’s new life doesn’t gain the production much after a while. The trouble with Harry is – he and his family are hard to like. And their stories are mostly flat.

Which is a pity, because Lutton has assembled an exceptional cast to bring the Joy family and others to life. Toby Truslove brings a kind of dignity to Harry that is at odds with his wife Bettina’s wish that he had stayed dead. Amber McMahon is wild as Harry’s wife, injecting much energy each time she steals the spotlight.

Wright’s approach to the material seems to regard the original text with such reverence, for much of the three-hour running time it felt like the actors were reading the book to me, suggesting that I should have just read it.

There are moments of satire in this show but they are not sustained or built upon. I worried for Harry’s well-being for a while and then I stopped. I wanted something more for his family and then I found it difficult to care.

Late in the play, I was wondering how the rest of the audience was doing. I was concerned for them. I looked around, thinking about that regular criticism of critics – you hated it, but what did the rest of the audience think? I didn’t do a poll, but I did note that several people didn't return after interval and that for a supposed comedy, there was only a scattering of laughs the whole night.

I got some food stuck in my throat at dinner before I saw Bliss. Maybe I died and woke up, much like Harry Joy, in Hell. The only way for him to resolve his dilemma was to die again. At least I got to get up and leave the theatre.



The cast of Bliss
Photo: Pia Johnson

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