Everyone has their own views on privileged white men in our society. What Peter Carey’s novel Bliss does, written four decades ago, is to present one of these 1980s privileged white man with an actual conscience and also one who has the capacity for self-reflection. This is one of the intriguing aspects of the novel that is translated to the stage so well by playwright Tom Wright in this new adaptation.
The background is the world of advertising, an industry within which Carey worked for 15 years, so coupled with the theme of a man’s quest for redemption and pursuit of a fruitful life, the idea of our pursuit of the material and of fame is explored through the lens of the advertising executive. A wry smile appears on members of the audience’s faces during interval when a television sound track of 40 year-old advertisements is played – ‘You make us smile, Dr Lindeman’ and ‘the Myer Bargain Basement is the place you should be.’ Remember these? It is a bit of a nostalgic Aussie trip.
Harry Joy (Toby Truslove) is one such executive who wakes up in hospital after recovery from a heart attack. He has an epiphany. He believes his life is hell and hopes there is time to fix this after having been given the gift of life for the second time. He begins to comprehend that he has, through his easily gained standing within the community, contributed to creating a world he simply now finds empty and ugly. A world where values and people take second place to aspiration and money.
In this new life, he still has to contend with his mates, his two children, his wife and her lover all of whom have their own troubles. As the play progresses, things become more and more hellish for Harry Joy. Truslove is able to clearly show Harry’s confusion, angst and desperation. Truslove brings about the right amount of pathos as Harry’s life and all that he stood for previously is upturned and unpicked.
Harry does take some comfort in his affair with Honey Barbara (Anna Samson) but even when he joins her at the play’s end within the idyllic surroundings of the forest with citizens of the tree-hugging persuasion, Harry still experiences a kind of hell.
Malthouse brings to the stage one of our best living authors’ characters in all their twisted and grotesque glory. It is a mammoth theatrical challenge and this two and a half hour long journey depicting the main character’s quest for redemption is a wonderful trip although there are some things which do grate.
It is a fun start though. The stage is sparse and lighting is stark. The accents are truly Aussie and the outfits are 1980s style. We are catapulted back to suburban Australia that some of us can just remember and others never known. The aspirations of the yuppies 80s, the sporting triumphs, the invention of the slip-slop-slap campaign are all in the background of this dark but comic story of Harry Joy.
We often laugh and at the same time squirm at the ugliness of Carey’s larger than characters. We may see our next door neighbours in them and perhaps some of our family members. These characters provide much humour which is a welcome relief from what is overall a dark and prescient tale.
Prescient because Carey places the microscope on society’s relationship with the environment, money, fame and societal class. The play is good at arguing that nothing much has improved in these areas for Australia; we are still bumbling away at trying to reconcile things even 40 years on.
Amber McMahon plays an excellent Bettina Joy, her ambition and taste for the luxurious is hilariously played by McMahon. She takes on the life that her husband would like to relinquish. Susan Prior and Marco Chiappi share a variety of roles between them which had the audience laughing.
The balance between narration and dialogue was a little uneven. The narration in many of the scenes could have been avoided. More showing not telling was needed. The revolving set and the ‘glass room’ placed on top of it served as another interior space delineating private versus public life. Because this inner glass room was used, the actors were all hooked up to a microphone which gave the production an amplified and less naturalistic sound.
For those lovers of nostalgia and those who want to spend time with an Everyman of the 1980s, this production is worth a look.