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Bareboards Productions in association with B Sharp presents the Australian Premiere of: BLISS, written by Olivier Choiniere and translated by Caryl Churchill, at the Downstairs Belvoir.

BLISS written by a Quebecois, Olivier Choiniere, and translated by Caryl Churchill in 2008, is set in a supermarket (an accurately depressingly realistic design by Justin Nardella – other play works by this writer have been site specific [Mr Choiniere’s own company: L’Activite] and the Designer and Director (Shannon Murphy) seem to have taken their design inspiration from that fact – it is truly, wonderfully accurate!!!) and concerns mostly the fantasy of one of the young staff members, Isabelle (Krew Boylan), who in her boredom fantasises about a possible life role with her celebrity idol, Celine Dion (her image being on the cover of a magazine in the market she works at, sparking her inventions). Three other staff members become useful imaginative agents for the fantasy of this pathetic young woman. Each of them have their job function: Manager (Simon Corfield), Cosmetics (Libby Fleming) and Display (Matt Hardie) printed on an identity badge, (backwards !!!!) on their uniforms/costumes. On cue they become tools for different roles in the obssessional imaginary world that Isabelle creates for herself, partaking in the real life tragedy and celebrity worship of Celine Dion.

The subject matter of the writer, of a young culturally impoverished being taking flights of fancy, out of boredom, using other more seemingly glamorous lives, as a substitute for their own desolate world, is hardly new territory in the theatre or recent film. Nor is the form of writing – (note as recently as UNDER ICE, Falk Richter, in the Sydney Theatre go-round). None of these characters actually interact – it is mostly third hand narration to the audience and is a kind of therapy technique of abreaction, (which was introduced to me by Dr Dysart in his treatment of the horse blinder Alan Strang in EQUUS in the “dark ages” of the seventies – Peter Schaeffer). The actors narrate the events whilst illustrating them. All of the acting, in this production, tends to reach for the comedy (satiric!!!) and are generally entertaining in an untidy kind of way. Ms Boylan switches on to a deeper connection to her character’s plight towards the end of the play and begins to move us, but it is quite a considerable wait into the proceedings.

The choreography of Johanna Puglisi is one of the more focusing energies of the production. The Lighting Design by Verity Hampson is her usual inventive and aesthetic self (high quality) while Steve Toulmin’s Composition and Sound Design is simply pragmatic.

The evening was, for most of the audience, kind of fun, but I could hardly begin to comprehend the reason to produce this play. There was nothing much being said anew and really no new way of saying it. The acting and directing, generally sufficient but not transporting. The fact that Caryl Churchill had translated it, the only point of curiosity for me. Unfortunately, it still is. (Ms Churchill has personal history with Canada, the only obvious reason I can decipher for her to do it.)

I have recently read M.J. Hyland’s novel THIS IS HOW. It, like this play, is told through the narration of the protagonist, in that case, Patrick Oxtoby. The imaginative demands and responsibility that that makes on the reader is demanding on all sorts of levels. The level of care and concern for the character I was imagining through the prompting of the writer, I found very daunting to do. In this play, then, a similar technique is meted out but with the imaginative work being further presented by actors. I did not feel that the work that the director asked of her actors was interesting enough for me to engage with. My reading of the play had a bigger affect on me. So, I am curious to ponder how could the work of the actor could be more useful for the theatre experience of this play. A more stylised approach, a more physically detailed and disciplined technique to the manner of the imaginative creations of Isabelle? To have a more direct contrast between the opening naturalism of the opening of the supermarket, as per this production, to demarcate the real life world and the world of fantasy? An element of magic was missing for me that would have lifted this well worn thematic territory and literary style out of the ordinary and familiar. Is that it?

I felt that here was an opportunity only half grasped. Adequately sufficient. It was not altogether an experience of BLISS.

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5 replies to “Bliss”

  1. Kevin, I am sorry that you did not appear to get anything much at all out of Bliss – the only relative favourable comments you posted were about the choreography and lighting design, which is generally a bit of a backhander really (the play was rubbish but the design was good). I do not think you recognised the quality of the acting at all (I note you apparently teach at NIDA) whereas my friend and I were agreed that the quality of the acting was very good (as in fact have been all recent productions at Belvoir Downstairs). I found it interesting to compare your comments on Cubby House, which I did not personally see, wherein you enjoyed it seems the theatre of the imagination. I thought that Bliss was in a similar fashion and was quite phantasmagoric (as in the sense of being somewhat separated from reality, to put it mildly). It was just a mad roller coaster of the senses and I cannot say that I have seen anything like it at all in 2009 — and is not that always a good thing to see something relatively completely fresh and new? (whether that's good or bad is of course another Q). You obviously seem to broadly think it was recycled old rubbish and appeared to have read the script beforehand, which is something that I am sure the vast majority of people DO NOT do, before or afterwards. So in that sense I think you are being overly analytical about it, but obviously it is anyone's point of view whether a production is "good" or "bad". With this production it was rather difficult to say as it was just such a headlong hurtle into a bizarre and alternative reality. It is the sort of thing that you rub your eyes afterwards and say "what the hell was that all about?!" but nevertheless enjoy having had the opportunity to see and participate in. It would be relatively easy to say either (i) it was a work of genius and imagination; or (ii) it was a work in which pyrotechnics took precedence over substance. Let's face it the Belvoir Downstairs sessions overall tend to be the best, and certainly the cheapest with a B Sharp card, in town. Sorry you did not "like" or "enjoy" it.

    My interest was also caught by the involvement of Caryl Churchill (translated by), who was it seems born in Canada, but let us face it she has not had that I recall any major productions in Sydney of her diminishing amount of material really since Cloud Nine and Top Girls were big in the early 80's (mind you is now over 70!)

  2. further to comment re Caryl Churchill translation of this – so Christopher Hampton did the translation of (French) Yasmin Reza's God of Carnage at STC – hardly think this is an issue to comment on, unless you think well known dramatists should not translate others' work!

  3. Caryl Churchill has had some productions of her recent work in Sydney. FAR AWAY (2000)was presented at the STC a few years ago at the Wharf Theatre (Benedict Andrews Production, I think. Sacha Horler was one of the actors). A NUMBER (2002) was produced at the Downstairs Belvoir not so long ago (with Ron Haddrick). And the STC gave a reading this year in the Sydney Theatre, followed by a discussion, of SEVEN JEWISH CHILDREN – A PLAY FOR GAZA.

    As far as translation is concerned, like Ms Reza who is very exacting about who her translators are,and probably Mr Choiniere, the better and more experienced the translator, especially as a playwright, the more likely the original work will be honoured. It is terrific that the English translators are of such impeccable credentials.

    I also believe that you have misread my view of the play BLISS. I did not regard the play as "rubbish", rather that it was covering territory that I felt I had seen many times before. In an arena where opportunity for production is rare, I was surprised that this play was being done as I did not, and this is only my personal reaction, you understand, I did not feel as if I had had a unique perspective to this subject matter (or form) as a result of seeing BLISS. I very often enjoy my time spent in this space, whether I enjoy myself or not aesthetically, as I find the works curated here often challenging for their subject or stylistic form, or both.

    The acting I thought was "entertaining" and "generally sufficient". I was curious that there may have been another element or dimension, to the acting style, for a play of this kind, that may have been explored that would have, maybe, revealed the potential of the material in a more arresting way.

    I also mentioned that the audience had "fun" at the performance I attended. I experienced the performance less subjectively than others that evening, for what ever reason, and I was attempting to tease out what that reason could be.

    As you can see, I go to the theatre quite a bit, and do feel challenged and ever optimistic that the experience will be blissful. When for what ever reason that doesn't happen I am always curious as to try to comprehend why. My blog is simply a personal rumination of my experiences.

    Thanks for expressing your point of view. If more of us were as passionate and curious the Arts in the country would be a very lively thing indeed. Diversity of opinion is what makes the world develop. Questioning and discussing, listening and learning.

    Kevin Jackson.

  4. P.S.: My appreciation of the Design and the Choreography, was not meant as a "back handed" statement but a sincere acknowledgment of those artists' work in this production. Those artists involved over that "toil" I thought should be acknowledged. The theatre is a collaborative process and all the elements are necessarily important and hard to get right. I believed that these elements were worth remarking about. To get all the elements right is the goal (it rarely happens) and that is both the challenge and the fun of working in the performing arts, I think. At least that has been my experience, as frustrating as it mostly is. Cheers.

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