Australian novelist and former advertising agency executive Peter Carey wrote Bliss, his first published novel, in 1981. It won the Miles Franklin Award and, in 1985, was turned into a film, directed by Ray Lawrence and starring Barry Otto. Not only was the film an AFI Award-winner but became a contender for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. And then, in 2010, an operatic iteration of Bliss was written by Brett Dean and Amanda Holden, and directed by Neil Armfield for Opera Australia.
Given the various media for which it’s already been translated and the success of both the novel and those adaptations, it’s not entirely surprising to see Bliss now realised as a play. Adapted by Tom Wright (the man behind the translation and adaptation of the recent production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by STC), this new staging of Bliss is directed by Malthouse’s Artistic Director, Matthew Lutton, and is a co-production of Malthouse and Belvoir. The show opened in Sydney last week following its premiere Melbourne season.
Set at the time of its publication (the early 1980s), Bliss is the story of a successful advertising executive, Harry Joy (Toby Truslove), who suffers a heart attack that causes his heart to stop for several minutes. When he returns to life, Harry experiences an awakening; he sees his wife, Bettina (Amber McMahon), and his children, Lucy (Charlotte Nicdao) and David (Will McDonald), in an entirely different – and far less favourable – light; he sees the marked deceit in which he engages for a living; and he sees a world on a catastrophic path. In fact, this epiphany even causes Harry to believe that rather than having survived his heart attack, he’s died and gone to Hell. He then embarks on a mission to change and to search for some kind of bliss in his new reality.
There are plenty of worthy themes in Carey’s text – questions as to the cost of progress, the subsequent costs of change, materialism and discerning the truth from fiction. The problem is that the foregrounding of relevant themes is stifled by an adaptation that is dense, that frequently favours lengthy monologues at the expense of engaging dialogue, and that is simply far too long. Five chapters of Carey’s novel are realised as five different layers of Harry’s Hell, each chapter depicting his deeper descent into that Hell. But that structure isn’t obvious because the piece lacks a sense of heightening tension and chaos, which would signpost that descent. There’s also a perplexing moment when the cast breaks into a dance routine performed to the theme of the late 1960s children’s TV show The Banana Splits.
In terms of the cast, a strong ensemble has been assembled. Truslove is convincing as the abruptly edified but disoriented Harry, determined to shed the skin of his former life. As his devious and avaricious wife, McMahon is excellent, while Mark Coles Smith does well as the daft Joel, with whom Bettina has an affair. Marco Chiappi is a standout as Alex Duvall, Harry’s work colleague, bringing some much needed light relief to the piece. As Honey Barbara, the woman who unknowingly lures Harry to a better life, Samson succeeds in her portrayal of a character who brings humanity to the table.
Unfortunately, the strong performances don’t mask the structural issues with this play, the key themes don’t come through clearly and effectively, and the final minutes of the show include multiple monologues that draw that conclusion out far longer than it need be. While the messages in Carey’s text certainly resonate with contemporary audiences, this production of Bliss is perhaps not a vehicle that will succeed in provoking much discussion of the issues.
BLISS – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 15 July, 2018
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444