Bliss – An insane 80’s integrated into the reserved 2018’s. (Theatre Review)


Belvoir Street Theatre

9-15 July. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Pia Johnson

One can be accused of stating the obvious in claiming Peter Carey to be a master of allegory. But his explicit recognition of the power of allegory in expression and his own recourse to the unsaid, and in this particular case, the effect of moving this allegory to the stage (as Belvoir do here with the assistance of Tom Wright) means that the task of the reader or watcher (but surely one of the great joys of seeing Bliss is the endless feeling one has of being inside a book) is often one of unfolding the highly implicit. Harry Joy (Toby Truslove) and those around him share a fascination with American culture. It can be argued Australians continue this enthrall today. In this, Bliss is not primarily illustration or example of a philosophical position on this relationship. Rather the story may be seen to anticipate, confirm or question the authority of the theoretical discourse. Why does Matthew Lutton want us to see Bliss on a stage today? (Besides the obvious nod to a chic retro cycle that currently has The Eighties at the top of its curve) Why does Peter Carey’s Australia in the 1980’s feel so prophetic? That a classic 80’s male runs the United States today helps. But more there are times when the literary writing itself crystalizes theoretical issues which are thematically dispersed throughout Bliss and which are not necessarily those which may at first sight appear to be dominant in the literary text. For example, Tom Wright’s adaptation calls forth a blurring of time between Australian ages (extending one of the books most beautiful analogies between time and honey) giving the audience an opportunity to see the themes of Bliss played out in the future real time of our lives. We are those who have lived for Bliss, not been reborn to reconfigure it. We are they trapped in Peter Carey’s consequences and in his warnings, which occur as ellipsis inside the text. Matthew Lutton’s offer of Bliss today is all the more powerful because we are Harry Joy before any of his deaths and we are this youthful despite the passage of thirty years.

The complex structure of Bliss is paradoxically designed to demonstrate the inadequacy of the structure which men seek to impose on the external world. Bettina Joy (an exhilarating Amber McMahon) and Honey Barbara (Anna Samson) are the twin birth canals of Harry’s re-entry but he is losing them to their agency. Harry Joy discovers as he confronts ‘The Story’ in the asylum that words no longer seem to confer identity upon the object, act or person designated. The fragile control of language over the world of things is undetermined. He also realizes that the existence of particular objects can no longer be explained in terms of the functions which we expect the to perform. He sees that social conventions are arbitrary and absurd impositions upon the world of human reality. Finally, he discovers there is indeed no inherent structure or necessity in the external world itself.

For the typically bourgeois audience of Belvoir the joy of this production of Bliss is the theatrical offer of an image of man’s actions that can change in the world. We, the audience, most desire ‘the well-made play’ (as Sartre would suggest) the image of our self that we can relate to rather than the critique of our ideology. This production of Bliss transports the audience where effective action is seen to be desirable and possible.  However, this is not via Harry’s attempts to change the world, or the consumerist drive to accumulate wealth, rather via allegory revealed through the creatives ability to adapt the book to this play. If Harry Joy can be accused of trying to describe his life in terms of causes rather than behaviors, we the audience are the manifestation of that inability and forced to confront the reality of The Act. We watch Harry Joy and understand (through our time travel) that acts are of no value if they are robbed of their meaning and objects of no value if they have lost their instrumentality. In short, Harry Joy speaks directly to this audience, in a language that we can understand, that being bourgeois involves being condemned to a living death. We look deep into a familiar and yet distorting mirror to subvert our accepted ideas and attitudes of determinism, immutability, pessimism and passion. In this, we write our own story and perform our own actions.

With Tom Wrights adaptation then, and under Matthew Lutton’s direction, Peter Carey’s Bliss becomes such a subversive intention, one could argue a correlation with Brecht’s drive to reject conflicts of character in favor of portraying moral decisions. Bliss undermines the fatalistic ethos (even as it includes a repeated death) and involves a critical consciousness. Bliss suggests that what may seem natural and inevitable in the in the 1980’s is relative and open to modification. The audience at Belvoir have a similar experience watching this production. A feeling that sits comfortably next to a fatalistic pessimism that hopes for a brush with death.

This and a tremendous slew of performances, make Bliss such an exquisite success. Marg Horwell’s set transports the cast time-travel-like on and off the stage encouraging the sense of movement through decades. She is aided by her own flawless costume design, Stefan Gregory’s sound and the lighting design of Paul Jackson that work together flitting the enveloping perception of time in and out of its firm position in the 1980’s. Matthew Lutton calls forth fine performances from an energetic cast who manage to ground the manic aspects of the play into its own unique trajectory, never tempted to solidify narrative which would destroy much of the magic of the play.

Bliss at the Belvoir is a complex and exciting play. Intellectually stimulating and emotionally invigorating, it is a play that excites the theatre goer into a deeper contemplation and reflection on life and what it means to travel though it.