Alison Croggon wonders why Bliss is the story that needs to be told right now
“Who gets to be the story is an immensely political question,” says Rebecca Solnit. “In the news and political life, we’re still struggling over whose story it is, who matters, and who our compassion and interest should be directed at.”
Bliss, as we’re told very often during this adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel at the Malthouse Theatre, is the story of Harry Joy. He’s the quintessential “good bloke”: the middle-aged white man around whom the world revolves, blithely insulated by his charm and privilege from seeing the darker machinations that keep him in comfort. He’s a recognisable Australian type that was very common in the long lunch of the 1980s, fragrant with tobacco and expensive alcohol, genial, morally dubious, unsinkably bobbing on the current of events.
Published in 1981, Bliss is Carey’s first novel, and launched his career when it won the Miles Franklin and made the Booker Prize shortlist. I was then a huge fan of Carey’s short story collections, The Fat Man in History and War Crimes, both of which contain, for my money, the best of Carey’s writing, and I bought the book with a lot of excitement.
I remember admiring the brilliant opening conceit – that Harry Joy is revived from dying during a heart attack, and from then on is convinced that he is in hell – and reading on in increasing disappointment as the story meandered in a sub-Marquez, picaresque fashion through a series of events that, in the end, amounted only to the validation and redemption of Harry Joy.
Harry Joy is an advertising executive, as Carey was before he turned to full-time writing. At interval we get to hear Carey’s most famous advertising jingle, You make me smile, Doctor Lindeman, conflating Carey even more with Joy. It creases, to no good effect, the feeling that Bliss is a self-exculpatory book.
Which leads me back to Solnit: who gets to be the story? This man. This is the man whose story it is, this is the person who matters, the person towards whom our compassion and interest are directed. Even when, as here, he’s a kind of anti-hero (until the narrative redeems and sanctifies him) he’s still the focus, still the figure with which we are meant to identify. The Good Bloke. The Man Who Means Well. The Man Who Always Gets Away With It.
Perhaps inhibited by the aura of reverent prestige that hangs around Bliss, Tom Wright’s three-hour-long adaptation is surprisingly faithful, zealously preserving all the novel’s faults. Matthew Lutton directs it with an air of increasing freneticism, explicating Carey’s black satire with a spin of contemporary apologetics.
Wright attempts to balance the centrality of the character of Joy by nudging up the stories of the two women in his life – Bettina, his wife, and Honey Barbara, his lover – and heightens the grotesquerie that abounds in the novel. There are little pointers, almost signs with arrows, that indicate that this is, in fact, a critique of the Good Bloke, a satire of the damage the Good Bloke obliviously wreaks until he wakes up to himself.
Despite its new theatrical dress, Harry Joy’s moral adventures – a 1980s version of Dante’s journey towards Heaven through Hell and Purgatory – remain as tedious for me as they did the first time I read them. Perhaps this time, I feel a little clearer about why. And look. I’m not saying that I’m uninterested in hearing from men, or about men. But this kind of story about this kind of man? Can’t we try something else?
Carey describes for us a vision of a corrupted world, poisoned by its own toxic delusions. The central symbol is cancer: it’s revealed in cancer maps that show the distributions of illness near industrial centres, or the carcinogenic saccharine that Joy advertises, or the cancer that destroys Bettina. Advertising is its own form of moral cancer, generating false values, poisoning perception, destroying the integrity of those who work there.
Against this capitalist excess we are shown the purity and health of Joy’s true lover, sex worker and alternative lifestyler Honey Barbara (Anna Samson) who, despite the efforts to bring her into focus, never becomes more than a function of Harry’s redemption.
But all this critique is negated by the structure and essential sentimentality of the story itself, which never questions the centrality or desirability of Harry Joy (we’re reminded at least twice that he looks like Krishna). The Good Bloke is absolved in a very Catholic way: he confesses his sins and does penance, and finally discovers redemption, which isn’t really redemption so much as his discovery of his essential Good Blokishness. And everyone else, except Honey Barbara, goes to hell.
I’ve ended up talking about the novel because the novel is basically what we get on stage. Wright and Lutton reflect its picaresque style with a heightened metatheatricality that, it must be said, has moments of genuine effectiveness. There is a charm in being told stories by excellent actors, and a lot of fine writing – indeed, rather too much – gets enacted here.
As if to combat an uneasy sense that, despite all the words, there’s not a lot going on, there’s much stage business: a dance routine in the madhouse to the theme of the Banana Splits, for example, which was fun while it lasted but was ultimately mystifying. But all this colour and movement never makes it more than an animated novel.
You can’t say that the Malthouse hasn’t thrown everything at the production. Lutton has assembled a top cast and crew. Marg Horwell’s set, given shape and mood by Paul Jackson’s lighting, is an ingenious glass greenhouse on a stark wooden stage with a revolve, which transforms into various kinds of interiors – a suburban house, an office, a prison. The actors work as stage hands, bringing on and removing props as they’re needed.
As Harry Joy, Toby Truslove is almost typecast: he embodies the Good Bloke, bluff, cynical and innocent all at once. Amber McMahon brings a complexity and refreshing irony to the role of his wife Bettina, who is a most unsympathetic character in the novel (surprise!), conniving, competitive, manipulative and treacherous. As Alex, his sidekick in the advertising agency, Marco Chiappi delivers some fine physical comedy, especially when he takes on the identity of Harry Joy. The rest of the cast do their best with what they have, which is a series of carciatures. I never felt any real connection with anyone on stage, except possibly a little flicker of empathy for Bettina.
The effect is of a lot of people working very hard at the top of their skills to deliver a text that doesn’t reward the time and expense. I still don’t know why this is the story that demanded to be told right now. And I’ve heard it so many times before.
Bliss by Peter Carey, adapted by Tom Wright, directed by Matthew Lutton. Sets and costumes by Marg Horwell, lighting by Paul Jackson, sound design and composition by Stefan Gregory. Performed by Marco Chiappi, Will McDonald, Amber McMahon, Charlotte Nicdao, Susan Prior, Anna Samson, Mark Coles Smith and Toby Truslove. Malthouse Theatre until June 2, Belvoir St Theatre Sydney June 9-July 15. Bookings http://malthousetheatre.com.au/whats-on/bliss
Malthouse Theatre is wheelchair accessible. This show will be audio described at the 5.00pm performance on May 20.