Bliss @ Belvoir

Rebecca Varidel
19th Jun 2018

I remember how Carey first challenged me. The first novel that made me sit up and immediately give it a second full reading, after reading and re-reading paragraphs and chapters, was Bliss. I've seen his work, and that of other favourite authors moved from the pages to the stage or screen. And until now I've hardly been happy. To tell you the truth, when I heard Bliss was to be a play I was scared.

So what's it all about Harry? For Harry Joy, dying was the final straw. For 39 years, the advertising executive has been the quintessential ‘good bloke’. But one morning Harry has a heart attack on his suburban front lawn, and, for nine minutes, he dies. On his resuscitation, the successful ad man awakens to a perverse vision of Australia and concludes: this must be Hell. This Hell must have existed his entire life, but Harry was never before awake enough to see it. Now Harry finds the products he advertises cause cancer. Allies have become enemies. His wife, children and friends want to punish him. To escape, Harry sets himself on an uncertain course: living a moral life.

Carey’s classic Australian novel won the Miles Franklin Award in 1981 and was adapted into a film starring Barry Otto in 1986 which took out three AFI Awards and the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for the screenplay in 1986.

This hallucinatory ride from suburbia to the rainforest, and beyond is now on the Belvoir stage, starring Toby Truslove (ABC’s Utopia) as Harry and a stellar ensemble cast including Marco Chiappi, Will McDonald, Amber McMahon, Charlotte Nicdao, Susan Prior, Anna Samson and Mark Coles Smith.

Writer Tom Wright (with Director Matthew Lutton, Set & Costume Designer Marg Horwell, Lighting Designer Paul Jacksonhas and crew) have done an excellent job in translating the novel. It's warped and whacky Bliss at its best.

All the philosophical musings are shown in their stark imagery. Lengthy passages of narrative hold the words of Carey true. Enormous acting particularly by Toby Truslove as Harry Joy take the script over the finishing line. He carries the confidence of the advertising executive, balanced with the vulnerability of questioning, with the bigness and the smallness of possibilities and realisations. That's not taking away from the whole mob including Indigenous actor Mark Coles Smith. Many of them carry multiple roles - including a bit of gender swapping. Truslove is pivotal to the success. And his two female flanks and kids (also with other role assignments) prop him up and (where the script requires) bring him down.

Bliss on this stage gave me more than I could have hoped for. I hung on every word. In fact, I literally found deeper meaning in life, the universe and all that - from my Belvoir seat. Yet it's not all so serious. There's a belly of laughs to be had too. Comedic timing is immaculate.

Bliss as theatre parallels my love of the novel in more than one way. This was the first time in watching theatre I've wanted to say 'OK let's start over' and watch it again. It's a long play, nearly three hours with interval, but I was ready to get going. Yeup right away. Right now. And if the cast and crew couldn't oblige again that night, there's always tomorrow... Make sure you see this one!

At Belvoir Street Theatre until July 15th