Malthouse presents Bliss

Bold adaptation offers satirical spin on Australian culture

By Lois Maskiell

Based on acclaimed Australian novel Bliss by Peter Carey, Tom Wright’s adaptation translates this satirical story about archetypal good bloke Harry Joy to stage. Matthew Lutton, artistic director and co-CEO of Malthouse directs this bold production that offers a sardonic take on the follies and fear of life in the big smoke.

Protagonist and advertising success Harry Joy (Toby Truslove) lives in utopian suburbia with wife Bettina (Amber McMahon) and two children (Will McDonald and Charlotte Nicdao). After the announcement that of all his deaths his first would have the greatest effect, Harry wakes from a stroke to find he’s in suburban inferno.

The Joy household explodes when Bettina sleeps with Harry’s junior colleague Joel (Mark Coles Smith) and daughter Lucy offers her brother David incestuous favours in return for dope. As tensions build, Harry escapes to his Hilton suite to deal with his existential dilemmas. It’s here that the unexpected Honey Barbara (Anna Samson), organic nut and casual prostitute appears and feeds him stories of a faraway utopian bush.

Bliss_Marco Chiappi, Toby Truslove_c PiaJohnson
Featuring: Marco Chiappi and Toby Truslove Photograph: Pia Johnson

Rich in image-soaked language of an unspecific Australian city, stories filled with advertising argot, frangipanis, green lawns and gravel blend into a bizarre series of events. From run-ins to escapades with waitstaff, neighbours, police and colleagues things get rather out of hand. These roles, mostly performed by comedic powerhouse Marco Chiappi and Susan Prior, are also shared among the cast with others having multiple roles. For those who relied on Harry’s blind optimism, his sudden change in attitude is unwanted. Except for the McMahon’s delightfully crass Bettina, who uses Harry’s crisis for her own ends. Venturing to build her own advertising empire, she even goes so far as to admit him to an asylum.

Wright shaves the novel down fitting it in a near two-and-a-half-hour production. Interestingly and unlike the book, he hands the narration over to all the characters whose lucid and omnipresent accounts enhance this charade of performances and story-telling. The absurdity of it all is no accident, as characters admit to using props and refer back to previous scenes.

One key difficulty was to catch the emotion of the final scenes. After being so engaged with the caustic and self-aware comedy that permeated most of the production, these final moments felt somewhat clunky.

Preserving the novel’s social commentary, which puts a lens on capitalism and on Australian culture as lurking in America’s shadows, there are many elements of this story that resonate today. Bliss is a bold adaptation that boasts a talented cast who together enliven Carey’s ‘81 novel.

Bliss is being performed at the Malthouse until 2 June.  Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9685 5111.

Photographs: Pia Johnson