A quirky Australian classic gets a new lease on life in this sadly underpowered stage version
Malthouse artistic director Matthew Lutton has expressed an ongoing desire to tell and retell Australia’s iconic mythologies; those narratives that have become embedded in one way or another in the collective culture. To this end, we’ve seen an electric Picnic at Hanging Rock and a truly expansive, poetic production of Away. It’s not hard to see his adaptation of Peter Carey’s 1981 novel Bliss as another nudge into the national psyche, and it’s potentially the most caustic and true.
Adman Harry Joy (Toby Truslove) dies for nine whole minutes, although whether he awakes at all and in what dimension is initially unclear. Is Harry in hell when he comes to and discovers his wife (Amber McMahon) is a cold-hearted adulteress and his kids (Will McDonald and Charlotte Nicdao) are narcissistic and incestuous monsters, or is this the life he built for them all? A series of increasingly improbable situations fail to make it clear, until Harry is forced to the uncomfortable realisation that hell might just be him.
Tom Wright has adapted the novel for the stage – he was also responsible for Lutton’s Hanging Rock – and has rejigged Harry’s epiphany to reflect current shifts in gender politics. Thus we get extended mentions of Harry’s cluelessness, his lifelong fuckuppery, his unchecked privilege; he isn't just a deluded fool seeing the error of his ways, he’s a rich, white man forced by a society of better-informed people to choke on the error of his ways. This is a significant change, one that arguably robs the character of all agency, and therefore robs the narrative of its pace and its structure.
Wright isn’t brave enough to jettison key imagery from the novel, so we still get a lukewarm commentary on Australian kowtowing to the US even when it’s clear the play isn’t remotely interested in this idea. There’s a half-hearted attempt to draw meta-theatrical comedy from the fact that Harry suspects his family of being mere actors – one gag has an actor reply when asked where a certain prop came from, “the props table” – but virtually none of the central tenets of the novel, including the creeping influence of US-style aggressive capitalism that lies at the heart of Carey’s satire, gain any kind of traction. There are ideas about the city versus the country, there’s cancer as a metaphor, there’s advertising as a twisted form of creativity, but all of them smash together like a box-ticking exercise.
Some of the performances are strong, although as an ensemble they seem to barely make it through the night – there’s a tentativeness, not to mention several missed cues, that probably should dissipate as the run continues. McMahon is the most consistently powerful, moving her character from gargoyle to gargantuan role model with a kind of effortlessness that no one else on stage can manage. Truslove is as monochrome as his white suit for the majority of the play, until he shifts abruptly but convincingly into a high poeticism; his skills at storytelling are vitally important but rarely utilised, and the overall effect is almost forgettable.
There’s a strange sense that this blandness, the kind of Australian Ugliness that Robin Boyd critiqued in his 1960 book of the same name, was precisely what the producers were after. Marg Horwell’s set is all pine, a middle-class rumpus room from hell, forever revolving and going nowhere. Like much of this designer’s work, it’s intellectually astute but awkward in practice. Paul Jackson’s intrusive lighting is effective on one level but mainly compensatory.
Theatrical adaptation is bloody hard; the best novels are often morally contradictory, chock full of confusing imagery and unlikely to conform to narrative absolutes. Tom Wright has approached Carey’s Bliss with a noble but ultimately misguided referentiality – he’s tried to include everything, and ended up with very little. Lutton seems to be directing in a heightened mode, as if he were producing the next Cloudstreet. But Carey’s prose is farcical, fun and bouncy. This adaptation is opposite: lumbering, repetitive and sadly boring. As the conclusion to a trilogy of Australian myth, it’s decidedly downbeat.