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Photo by Pia Johnson

Belvoir and Malthouse Theatre present, BLISS, by Peter Carey, adapted for the stage, by Tom Wright in the Upstairs Belvoir Theatre, Surry Hills. 9 June – 15 July.

BLISS, is an ‘old’ Australian novel, by Peter Carey. It is his first novel – 1981 – adapted for the stage by Tom Wright. BLISS, the novel, has also been re-incarnated as a film, adapted by Ray Lawrence (the Director) in association with Peter Carey in 1985, and also as an Opera, music by Brett Dean with a libretto by Amanda Holden, in 2010.

The novel is a comic fable, where Harry Joy, an advertising man – ‘a mediocrity’ – dies for 9 minutes and is resuscitated to the self-delusion that he is in Hell. His family, his business, all, are representative of Hell and it is in finding Honey Barbara, a ‘gold hearted’ hippie, who lives in a forest, that he finds a refuge. He becomes a kind of 1980’s Everyman, as he travels through the ‘landscape’ of his self-made environment seeing his life as it really is for the first time. The novel contains a simple minded message that the enemies/villains of society are advertising, cities, and his/our salvation is in embracing the ecological ideal where, for instance, the making of a special honey may be salve enough for healthy, healed living. This adaptation in 2018, is an oft-repeated trope from 1981, and considering that 37 years have passed and no real progress in embracing the Joy-Blissed Revelation has taken place, it may be a redundant contribution to our present cultural enlightenment. We’ve heard it, we’ve exclaimed over it, and we have ignored it. So, why is BLISS being adapted again?

This adaptation begins and is ‘infected’ throughout, with direct monologues to audience (three different voices to start with!!!), to give expositional securities to move the experience forward and its political dialectics clarity. As in Tom Wright’s recent adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI for the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), Mr Wright has a contemporary political agenda that he wishes to communicate/pedal. In the form of this play after three hours of relentlessness, one feels that one has been preached at, vocally harangued, into being ‘spoon-fed’, a personal message. Says Mr Wright in interview with Stephen Romei before the Malthouse premiere of this work:

I don’t understand the distinction between translation, adaptation or fresh writing.

How much of this text is straight Peter Carey or a concoction of Mr Wright I do not know, but I suspect, as there was in his STC UI adaptation a lot of ‘fresh writing’. It is decorated with a usage of vocabulary that is starry in its breadth and depth and has a wonderful construction of sentence that often, however, has the feel of a narcissistic word-smith with no real sense of dramatic play writ. It is, probably, better appreciated when read than seen. It tends to show-off rather than engage us. It felt as if its form and formula is its primary goal of appreciation rather than narrative or character content. Is the writer wanting admiration for his word juggling and ideas rather than for dramatic communication of story through character in a live theatre?

Another political ‘intellectual’ of the theatre is G.B. Shaw and he has, at least, the perspicacity – perhaps, it is because of his Irishness – to mix it up with comic wit to make his ‘diatribes’/arguments/disquisition palatable. He, also, creates the opportunity for his actors to create real, vulnerable human beings, as well, if the performing artists are rigorous in ‘discovering’ their Given Circumstances – and are not just ‘talking heads’. Not much wit in Mr Wright’s text – clever, admirable circumlocutions of language but not accessibly funny. There is little relief from the blunt earnestness of the promulgation of ideas.

Tom Stoppard, as well, has managed to create political critique with humour and a keen observation of real human beings. Howard Barker should not be forgotten as a powerful contemporary political playwright who manages to create real three dimensional characters and, though it is more often a grim “gallows humour”, to be funny as well.

Brecht, too, is another play writer with political intellectual agenda, but has the ability to create from scene to scene, genuinely human, moving episodes with characters in subjective dilemmas, that gives an emotional impulse to its audience, that then is expertly undermined by his deliberate technique of ‘verfremdungsteffekt’ – alienation, theatrical distancing – to sober the audience’s emotion to take on the objective intellectual intention of the order of the scene.

Is the writing the problem of BLISS?

Or, is it the style of performing that these, mostly, very gifted actors have taken on under the Direction of Matthew Lutton, that after a full season in Melbourne before opening here in Sydney, has become a well drilled proclaimed declamatory ‘hurl’ of shouted language – all helpfully ‘miked’ into a technical, cool ‘noise’ – and simplistically owned by the actors as mere representational figures of cliche character types? (Question: “Do we really need the actors to be artificially micro-phoned in the Belvoir space?”

In the creative ‘space’ of disconnection this production allowed me, the sight of the microphone curled across one side of the face of the actors, with the bag of ‘battery’ deforming the physical profile of the actor at their back, gave me permission to shift into seeing an illusion of mechanised ‘robots’ at work.For the acting does not ever approach real flesh and blood or invite any empathy from the audience. The performance glided forward as if it were on an inevitable track without any notice of the audience feedback to propel the experience that might contribute to the ‘in the moment’ vitality – life – of the story telling. One had to ask, “Did we really need to be there for these actors to perform?” So, that when the production Direction escalated into a ‘farcical’ mode in the second half of this three hour show, it became an absolute one way dialogue, for, the audience who, mostly, sat deflated, bewildered, by what was been offered, was unable/unwilling to participate in giving active energy to help sustain/inflate the actors to the stratospheric belief in the actions demanded by the ‘style’. It all kind of fell flat.

These days when confronted with a glass box on stage – Set Design by Marg Horwell – even one that has a wooden frame variation, alarms of concern are alerted, unconsciously or consciously, by the weary recognition of past exclusions from the heat and sound of the actors, from within the closed-off, packaged, wrapped box. Add a revolve and an ‘Ikea’-like wooden, blondish box to surround all and the sterility of it overwhelms. The actors were walking, literally, perhaps, intentionally metaphorically, on the spot while the world revolved by.

Anna Sampson as Honey Barbara comes out of this acting style best, Susan Prior most unlike herself, Amber McMahon, simply re-showing her performance as a skilled satirist, and Toby Truslove bearing the central role of Harry Joy, suggesting that when giving his characterisation, in occasional support, in the television satire UTOPIA, as Karsten Leith, the vapid media and marketing content creator, he was giving the apotheosis of his gifts, for nothing really gels on the Belvoir stage for us to appreciate what he has to say as Harry Joy. This performance confirmed my appreciation of his work in the STC’s production of THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN.

BLISS, in play form at the Belvoir proved to be a long night in the theatre with nothing added to the experience of reading the novel and seeing the film in the nineteen eighties and much later appreciating the Brett Dean/ Amanda Holden Opera version.

Bliss defined in the dictionary: perfect happiness; great joy. In this adaptation/production, not for many of us, I’m afraid.

P.S. I notice that there is no biography of Peter Carey, the original creator, in the program. An interesting ommission.