Eight­ies may­hem is pure Bliss

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - INSIDER - JO LITSON ARTS WRITER [email protected]

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.”


“I felt like all th­ese ideas were bur­geon­ing in

the ’80s

Harry (Toby Truslove) and Honey Bar­bara (Anna Samson).

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