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Peter Carey’s Bliss goes to hell in a Harry cart at Belvoir

Written by
Stephen A Russell
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Harry Joy is dead. Long live Harry Joy. After blinking back to life nine minutes after a massive heart attack, the protagonist of Peter Carey’s 1981 Miles Franklin-winning debut novel sees the world, and even his own family, in a very different light. As John Milton’s Satan would say, “The mind is its own place, and in itself, Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”

Adapted by Tom Wright, artistic associate at Belvoir, and directed by Malthouse’s artistic director Matthew Lutton, the new theatrical version of the novel – already adapted as the 1985 Barry Otto-led film and an acclaimed 2010 opera – is a darkly comic piece that unravels the mind of ad exec Harry (Utopia star Toby Truslove). Questioning everything he stood for pre-temporary death, his wife is cheating on him, his kids will stop at nothing to get what they want and his work is in cahoots with cancerous clients.

“What’s good about the Carey is that the metaphor of it is slippery,” Lutton says as we sit down together on a break from an intense day of rehearsals. “We are watching someone wake up and see the world for what it is, and see how hellish it is, and yet also see his own complicity in it, that he’s been one of the major players in reaching this hell without ever realising it.”

Matthew Lutton in rehearsal for 'Bliss'
Photograph: Pia Johnson

Set in the ‘80s, Lutton hints at era-evoking wood veneer sets by Marg Horwell and a surprising dance sequence. Tackling the clashing political spheres of capitalism and communism, environment-destroying corporations and the mad ad men who polish their poison, it’s a Kafkaesque kitchen sink drama writ large and surreal. The storm clouds depicted are distressingly similar to ours today, perhaps suggesting we’re stuck in some kind of purgatorial limbo.  

“Peter Carey was quite prophetic,” Lutton agrees. “What they were wrestling with then has just exploded today. When the characters express paranoia about what’s happening in the world, you deeply agree with them now.”

Structured in five acts, each depicting a further descent into hell that leads through a David Lynchian waiting room and towards a mental asylum before the promise of a new life, Lutton notes that Carey’s story can also be read as a contemporary parable about the downfall of the patriarchy.

As such, it was vitally important that he and Wright gave as much time as possible to the roles of Harry’s unfaithful wife Bettina (Amber McMahon) and his newfound hippie lover Honey Barbara (Anna Samson) while workshopping the bones of the piece on whiteboards together, before Wright put pen to paper.

“We’ve kept almost everything from Bettina in the novel, whereas we’ve cut heaps of Harry’s stuff, so they have equal theatrical weight,” Lutton says. “She drives certain acts and we’ve taken great effort to tell her story from childhood. She was born in a petrol station and has this prophetic quality, describing having petrol in her veins. She’s the capitalist in the play.”

Which sets her apart from commune-living sex worker Honey Barbara. “We were also at great pains to break down the stereotype of the prostitute with a heart of gold, showing how flawed she is equally,” Lutton adds.

Toby Truslove, Amber McMahon and Marco Chiappi in 'Bliss'
Photograph: Pia Johnson

And the answers aren’t easy. Harry and Honey Barbara might retreat to a ‘simpler life’ surrounded by nature, but far from living on the margins, she’s growing pot to sell in the city. She’s just as complicated and conflicted a character as he is.  

It’s not all doom and gloom in this hell on earth. Lutton, who also collaborated with Wright on the Malthouse’s wildly successful adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, says he was drawn to the eccentricity and absurdity of Carey’s novel. “It’s very funny. It’s a great satire that can be read by an audience for its humour and enjoyed, but then the deeper you go into it, the politics and the ideas in it get more and more complicated; the definition of a classic. It’s very much got that sense of a babushka doll.”

He wasn’t anxious about tackling the beloved Australian author, but has been overwhelmed in the rehearsal room with the sheer scale of the production, the biggest the Malthouse has tackled to date and a co-production with Belvoir. Not that you should expect a numb bum when the curtain falls, Lutton’s quick to add. “It goes lightning fast and Tom’s rendered it in a deeply moving way. When you arrive at the ending, you get very emotional. It’s really beautiful. Peter Carey has written an epic novel, and we’re sort of giving it an epic treatment.”

Bliss is at Belvoir St Theatre from June 9 to July 15.

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