Merlyn Theatre, Melbourne
May 9, 2018
Peter Carey’s first novel, Bliss, won the Miles Franklin Award in 1981, became a feature film four years later, then an opera in 2010. Its excellent pedigree meant it was probably destined for theatrical adaptation. Who better to tackle it than playwright and Belvoir artistic associate Tom Wright, and Malthouse Theatre’s artistic director Matthew Lutton, whose previous collaborations include last year’s outstanding Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man.
Unfortunately, the world premiere of Bliss, which will continue on to Sydney, is an uneven, sometimes laborious three-hour journey. There are quite a few laughs and a moment of poignancy at the end, but overall this fast-talking satire about identity, morality and mortality struggles, on a sparse set that hinders more than helps the cast.
Toby Truslove and Anna Samson in Malthouse Theatre’s Bliss. Photo © Pia Johnson
Set in an Australian city in the 1980s, Carey’s story is centred on successful adman Harry Joy, who is revived after a heart attack only to realise his life is a kind of hell. Cancer is an epidemic, and his clients are complicit. His wife, Bettina, and business partner are having an affair. His communist daughter’s willing to have sex with her capitalist brother for the drugs he’s selling. Harry begins shutting down his ad agency and hooks up with hippy prostitute Honey Barbara, as he sets out on the long road to redemption in this hell of his own making.
Wright effectively conjures a time and place in Australia’s past when immoral ambition, in love with vapid American consumerism, had a veneer of blokey charm. At times he also reveals how that past, lightly evoked in Marg Horwell’s costumes and a few vintage props, would lead to an arguably more hellish present. The cafe latte has just arrived, and people are taking Polaroids of their food. How prescient former adman Carey was.
Amber McMahon in Malthouse Theatre’s Bliss. Photo © Pia Johnson
In another nod to the 21st century, Wright makes Bettina and Honey Barbara more central than they are in the novel. The former’s character is well-drawn, from growing up in a petrol station to struggling for recognition in a man’s world, but Honey’s solemn mix of paranoia and earnestness, and her inscrutable relationship with Harry, sucks momentum from the play.
The cast are hard working: often moving props in haste between scenes, remembering their marks in the challenging choreography created by the central revolving stage, quickly tossing dialogue at each other for hours with barely a hitch. The supporting cast of five also jump from character to character. Susan Prior is particularly strong in the latter department, bringing different shades of cynical humour to several roles, both male and female, including an Italian-Australian waiter and a mental health institution’s manager.
Charlotte Nicdao, Anna Samson, Toby Truslove and Will McDonald in Malthouse Theatre’s Bliss. Photo © Pia Johnson
Toby Truslove hits the right notes as Harry: an easy-going confidence, flecked with comic confusion and mild alarm, as he takes a revelatory, rather surreal journey toward enlightenment. Amber McMahon also impresses as Bettina, revealing layers of sadness beneath her sardonic, ambitious facade. Anna Samson has nowhere to go with Honey Barbara: this flawed symbol of redemption is essentially a serious character lost in a steady flow of satirical, sometimes absurdist humour.
Bliss would probably benefit from a few cuts. It sometimes sags under the weight of a man’s, indeed a nation’s, tragi-comic existential crisis, and the expectation that comes from adapting a modern literary classic.