Eighties mayhem is pure Bliss
In 2016, Matthew Lutton, artistic director of Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, and writer Tom Wright staged a hit adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic At Hanging Rock, which Peter Weir famously filmed.
Now they have turned their hand to another classic Australian book, Peter Carey’s Bliss, which won the 1981 Miles Franklin Award and became a 1986 film starring Barry Otto.
“We had worked on Picnic At Hanging Rock and I was interested in taking that collaboration further and looking at another Australian classic, and there was something very pleasurable about how different (the two novels are),” Lutton says.
“Picnic At Hanging Rock is very Gothic and pictured in the landscape, and Bliss is very urban and darkly comical, so it felt like building a body of work with something completely different.”
Bliss opened at Malthouse in May, and arrives at Belvoir next weekend. The Melbourne reviews were mixed but Lutton, who chats with great enthusiasm about the show, didn’t read them.
“I haven’t read reviews for a number of years now,” he says.
Carey wrote Bliss when he was 38 and ready to leave his job in advertising to become a writer. The book begins with successful ad executive Harry Joy having a heart attack on his front lawn. Dead for nine minutes, everything seems perversely changed when he awakens.
His family and friends want to punish him and he wonders if they are actors playing a role. Meanwhile, the products he advertised cause cancer. Convinced this must be Hell, Harry tries to escape with the help of hippie and part-time sex worker Honey Barbara.
Lutton says that he and Wright found the novel prophetic, and that the things Carey was talking about — such as Australia’s obsession to become more American, and his suggestion of cancer maps — ring true nearly 40 years on. “I felt like all these ideas were burgeoning in the ’80s and now we are seeing them in full flight,” he says.
The show has been divided into five acts. “And each act feels like a different layer of Hell, with a different tone and quality,” says Lutton.
“The first act is the metatheatrical sense of Harry standing on stage and (thinking) that everyone around him is just doing fast costume changes and is actually the same group of actors appearing endlessly. As he goes to the hotel, and then the mental hospital, it’s like Dante going down to another layer of Hell. The show gets madder and more complicated as it goes.”
The strong cast includes Toby Truslove as Harry, Amber McMahon as Harry’s wife Bettina, and Anna Samson as Honey Barbara, while the other actors play multiple roles.
“It has grown enormously since opening night (in Melbourne). With a show of this scale it is such a race to bring it all together. Although we haven’t changed any writing, a lot of the clarity that you gain comes from an ensemble that is completely in control with what they are doing, which only comes with doing it after 20 or 30 performances,” Lutton says.
“I think they are deepening it and they have great muscular, musical control of it now, which is thrilling to watch.”
BLISS, BELVOIR ST THEATRE, JUNE 9- JULY 15. BOOK: 9699 3444
“I felt like all these ideas were burgeoning in
Harry (Toby Truslove) and Honey Barbara (Anna Samson).