About

Harry Joy is the blessed Australian – a childhood of mystical innocence, a home stuffed with love, he brings a smile to all he meets. Then, one warm afternoon on the front lawn, he dies. It’s only for a few minutes – he’s revived. But the world he wakes to is changed; his wife, children and friends all now seem avaricious monsters. And so it dawns on Harry Joy: he hasn’t survived his heart attack at all. He is in Hell.

Enter Honey Barbara, a hippie from the rainforest, wise to the ways of the big city. She and Harry melt back into the verdant bush, where their children tell a story of a Paradise Found.

Peter Carey’s classic novel performed by a terrific ensemble cast. Entertaining and a little bit epic, it might just offer a vision of hope…

A co-production with Malthouse Theatre

Warning: This production contains strong adult themes, sexual and drug references and coarse language.

Cast

Marco Chiappi
Mark Coles Smith
Will McDonald

Amber McMahon
Charlotte Nicdao
Susan Prior

Anna Samson
Toby Truslove

Team

By Peter Carey
Adapted for the stage by Tom Wright
Director Matthew Lutton
Set & Costume Designer Marg Horwell
Lighting Designer Paul Jackson
Sound Designer & Composer Stefan Gregory
Stage Manager Brooke Kiss
Assistant Stage Manager Erin Shaw

Performance Times

Tuesday & Wednesday 6.30pm
Thursday & Friday 8pm
Saturday 2pm & 8pm
Sunday 5pm

Previews (bookable)
8pm, 9 June
6.30pm, 10 June
8pm, 12 June

Opening Night (invitation only)
8pm, 13 June

Post-show Q&A
19 June, directly following the performance

Thursday Matinee
1pm, 5 July

Unwaged Performance
2pm, 12 July

Audio-described Performance
2pm, 14 July

Belvoir Briefing
6.30pm, 14 June

Running Time
Approx. 2 hours & 45 mins inc. interval

Prices

Single tickets to Bliss are now on sale. Subscribing remains the cheapest option. Book tickets as part of a subscription and save up to 31% on the single ticket prices below.

Full Price^ $72 – $77
Subscriber Discount Rate $67
Seniors*/Groups (10 or more) $62 – $67
Concession† $49 – $54
30-Down# $47
Previews $40
Student Saver# $37

* Seniors prices are available with an eligible Australian Government-issued Seniors Card.
† Concession prices are available with a full-time Australian student card, all Centrelink Pensioner concession cards and Veteran Affairs’ cards. For 2018 productions, these prices can also be accessed by Industry members of Actors Equity (MEAA), AACTA, ASMA, ASDA, ARDA, AFTT, Australian Academy of Dramatic Arts, Actors Centre, Performance Space, Australian Writers’ Guild, Artshub and the NSW Writers’ Centre.
# 30-Down and Student Saver prices are available for Previews, Wednesday evening, Thursday evening, Friday evening, Saturday matinee, Saturday evening.
^Tickets to Sunday performances have an added $5 surcharge.

Full ticket terms and conditions can be found on the Ticket Prices page.

Videos

Reviews

This work has so much to say about our country, our sexism, our health and our values that it is impossible to leave without being affected and thinking about its multi-layered messages.

Herald Sun

…I loved it, because the actors are committed and strong which is in part a tribute to their craft and that of the director…

Stage Noise

…pacey direction by Matthew Lutton and an ensemble cast that crackles with talent and energy.

Australian Book Review

★★★★
The next laugh is never far away. Bliss is definitely for an Australian audience…

Arts Hub

…nobody misses a beat…An enriching adventure.

Stage Whispers

[Tom] Wright has brought the story up to date by amplifying the theme of gender equality and giving the two main female characters, Bettina Joy and Honey Barbara, equal weight with Harry.

Australian Stage

Toby Truslove hits the right notes as Harry: an easy-going confidence, flecked with comic confusion and mild alarm…

Limelight Magazine

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.

Witness

Sprightly, with a little acerbity, [Bliss] is an energetic production, spouting clever ideas at every turn.

Suzy Goes See

Madcap, adventurous, funny, sad and inventive…

Sydney Arts Guide

Partners

Bluffer's guide to BLISS

Harry Joy, an ad agency exec, dies from a heart attack in his backyard while having dinner with his family. His heart revives nine minutes later, but while ‘dead’ he becomes aware of the literal reality of Heaven and Hell. So much so, that Harry thinks his return to life is actually an entry into Hell. This opens the Peter Carey floodgates of satire.

Harry discovers his wife Bettina’s infidelity, his son David’s drift toward drug dealing, his daughter Lucy’s Communist quirks twisted with touches of sibling incest, and is convinced their toxic behaviour confirms they are all also captives of Hell, trying to please those who are in charge of the Underworld. So Harry curses his family and moves into the Hilton, where he meets Honey Barbara.

When he returns to work at his advertising agency, Harry purges the evil, discarding clients with such unrepentant vigour, he is committed to a mental asylum. But it’s not long before Harry is released from the asylum. When he and Honey Barbara return to Harry’s family home to cleanse it of Hell, there are many unexpected revelations and reversals.

There is an idealistic escape from urban phobias, sharing the energy of Honey, into a hippie rainforest nirvana, where Harry explores his final fable of holism, tree-worship, and vegetarianism. As Harry drifts again into oblivion, there is much to feel sorry for, and much to smile about, in his mangled analysis of the contemporary capitalist world’s paradoxes.

BLISS runs until 15 July
 Click here for tickets

Director Matthew Lutton talks about Bliss

Malthouse Theatre’s Youth and Education Manager Vanessa O’Neill met with their Artistic Director Matthew Lutton to discuss the Malthouse Theatre and Belvoir production of Bliss.

Why are you interested in staging Peter Carey’s novel Bliss?

I am interested in staging Australian classics that offer a theatrical challenge, and that critique and reveal who we are today. At a time when men are needing to re-evaluate their place in the world, it is fascinating to interrogate how Harry Joy experiences a similar awakening and attempts to negotiate what it means to no longer be at the centre of power. I am also interested in telling an Australian classic that has great humour and is wildly eccentric, and that is the terrain of Peter Carey.

Carey’s award-winning novel was written in 1981. What are the key themes of Bliss and how do they speak to audiences in 2018?

There are many, many themes in Bliss. It is a story about a lot of different diseases: capitalism, Australia’s cultural cringe, Americanism, cancer, patriarchy, drugs. These diseases were growing the 1980s, and many are now in full flight.

It is a story about the hope for change and trying to find ‘cures’ for these diseases among clashing social ideologies. It is also a story about what it means to try and ‘be good,’ to strive for goodness, if ‘goodness’ even exists.

It is also a story about developing culture, and the need for stories. We need stories in Australia to help clarify what is happening around us, and many of these characters don’t have Australian stories to help guide them, so they invent them.

How conscious will audiences be of the early 1980s setting throughout this production?

The production is clearly set in the 1980s, even though it is told with a 2018 lens. It will be costumed in 1980s clothing and the aesthetic of the stage references will be from the 1980s, but the commentary throughout the script is from a 2018 perspective.

Bliss has already been adapted into a film and an opera. What does a theatrical adaptation offer (as distinct from the other forms)?

Direct storytelling with the audience is what theatre can offer. The characters in this adaptation can speak directly to the audience, so the audience can be involved in the many stories within stories.

Harry’s theory that everyone in the world (or ‘Hell’ as he sees it) is an ‘actor,’ also acquires new resonances when adapted for the stage. The actor playing Harry is constantly able to step out of the show and question whether the theatre and people onstage with him are ‘real’ or not.

A key premise of the story is that after Harry Joy ‘dies,’ he comes to the belief that he has woken up in ‘Hell’. How will Harry’s perception of ‘Hell’ be created throughout this production?

The key thing about Harry’s experience of ‘Hell’ is that he is now aware of what has always been around him—he just never paid it enough attention. Hell is therefore Harry’s increasing paranoia as he recognises the prevalence of ‘sins’ and ‘diseases’ around him, and his complicity in them.

There is also great level of humour in the way Harry navigates Hell. In this production, we will give him a dictaphone, which allows him to constantly record his conversations, and share them with the audience.

The staging of the production is about Hell being the same ideas seen from a different point of view. Each of the five acts can be considered as another layer of hell (like Dante’s Inferno), where the same stage elements are re-arranged, duplicated, enlarged or shrunk. A wooden room, a glasshouse that can move and make images appear and disappear, lots of chairs, lots of wine bottles, all these elements help to create our many layers of Hell.

Peter Carey himself worked in advertising in the late 1970s in Australia and his first novel is a very savage critique of the advertising industry. How will this critique be explored in this production?

It is explored mainly through the character of Bettina (Harry’s wife), and the theme of cancer. Bettina sees the beauty or art in advertising, and the safety it can bring you, but living with this view also brings about her death. There is also a very clear motif throughout that advertising is about alternative facts and truth is never a priority. All the products mentioned throughout Bliss cause cancer, and every ‘ad’ conveniently prefers not to mention this.

The creative team are almost the same team that you worked with on Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man. What are some of the advantages of working with the same creative team on a range of productions?

It means as a team you can take risks. Bliss is by far the largest, most complicated collaboration this team has undertaken. It is complicated because it is a sprawling story with many layers, and we need a lot of theatrical solutions to keep the production inventive. Working with a team that already has a strong working relationship means we can go much deeper into our artistic conversations and have a shared vocabulary.

What are some of the key choices that you have made regarding the set, lighting and sound design of this production?

For the set design, we have decided to create a storytelling space, a room with a 1980s aesthetic. Then, inside this room is another room—a glasshouse. This becomes our magic portal into new layers of Hell: our interrogation room, our capitalistic beacon, a glass ceiling that needs to be smashed, a birthing chamber, a paradise. Lighting this glass structure onstage (that also rotates) will be an enormous lighting challenge.

The sound design will also be a challenge, as it needs to help the production shift location and atmosphere constantly. One thing that is unique in Carey’s novel, is that he doesn’t reference any pop culture. No music, fashion or artists are mentioned. We have therefore decided not to use any 1980s music, but instead will incorporate many of the TV and radio jingles that Peter Carey himself wrote when he was in advertising. This will create an urban soundscape that is the opposite to the beauty and serenity of the buzzing bees and nature that Harry encounters in the last act.

Could you tell us about the range of theatrical styles that this production will make use of?

The production will make use of an eclectic range of theatrical styles. The entire show has a level of satire, but then it breaks out into direct address through storytelling, as well as moments of choral narration, and even a dance routine.

The work is also one of magic realism. The world Harry sees around him is a real world where strange and surreal events occur: an elephant sits on his car, a colleague steals his identity, he flies over his own body. The production therefore requires a theatrical language that can be both real and surreal simultaneously. The story is quite urban, but that does not mean it feels like a domestic drama, it is more like an urban epic or an urban odyssey.

Finally — do any of the characters find ‘bliss’ in this production? How does this manifest itself?

Some do, some don’t. Harry certainly finds a sort of bliss when he discovers a way to slow down, be helpful, patient and not take up so much space. He discovers a personal bliss that involves planting trees, to create beautiful honey 30 years into the future. He also finds love with Honey Barbara, and a way to tell truthful, beautiful stories, as opposed to advertising. But this bliss isn’t a utopia. This is not a romanticised state of bliss. It is Harry recognising that the world is Hell, but that he can find purpose within it.

Tom Wright talks about adapting Bliss – Part One

In a fascinating two-part interview, Tom Wright discusses the ins and outs of adapting Peter Carey’s award-winning debut novel Bliss for the stage, as well as his recent work, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man…

How many times have you read Bliss?

It’s a useful question because you could argue that I should’ve read it more! I read it perhaps three times before I was asked to write the adaptation. In hindsight, I wish I’d read it six. So, although I knew the novel well going into adapting it, I didn’t know it intimately. I learnt a lot about it once I started adapting it though.

I read it the first time not long after the film came out and then again when I was at Uni in the late 1980s. Then I re-read it about six years ago and felt like the book had changed. The metaphysical fable had opened into a tall story of the cultural cringe, consumerism, identity, and the question of who gets to tell the stories.

Why did you decide to adapt Bliss into a play?

Adapting Bliss into a play came out of Malthouse and Matt Lutton. I said yes because of a working relationship with the artists in question; the director Matthew, the designer Marg Horwell, the lighting designer Paul Jackson and Stef Gregory the sound designer and composer – all of those people I really enjoy working with. But then when I sat down to start the business of adapting a Peter Carey novel… It’s his first novel and up until then he’d been a short-story writer and an advertising copyist, and you can feel the archaeology of a short-story writer within the novel. It feels like seven or eight stories which have been fairly deliberately stitched together into novel form.

One of the problems with Bliss, and it’s a good problem, is that Peter Carey self-dramatises. Harry Joy isn’t a self-portrait but it does seem to reflect a certain time in Peter’s life when he made a decision: do I continue in advertising or do I (metaphorically) disappear into the bush? But for him, of course, the bush was actually New York; he moved closer to the centre of western culture not further away from it. So that’s where he and Harry Joy diverge. I found all of that quite interesting but the question kept nagging; Whose story is this?

Enclosure and freedom are contrasting concepts in many of Peter Carey’s novels, including Bliss. How are ‘captivity’ and ‘escape’ dramatised in the play?

It’s a story of privileged people. One of those privileges being that you can always leave, you always have a choice. But not everyone in this world has a choice. The idea of entrapment isn’t so much about being contained by big social structures, they’re contained or curtailed by ideologies that are absorbed within the body.

I was really interested in the character of Bettina. On one level, she is completely free to do what she wants – she’s not going to be imprisoned or impoverished necessarily by her choices. But by the same token, she feels herself completely constrained by her role going back to her early childhood. All of them are, in the words of the novel, in hells of their own making. There’s also this question of what actually is liberty? What is liberation from this continuous image-making? The novel’s clearly interested in an Australian (male) tradition of raconteur-ship, the storytelling-round-the-campfire invention of reality that goes back to Tom Collins’ Such is Life and Henry Lawson. It has sort of metastasised into advertising copy, Mojo jingles, and so on, by the time we hit the world of Bliss. So the question for Harry Joy is: how do you make the stories real again; how do you make them rich again; how do you stop them just being bullshit and propaganda to sell products we don’t need; how do you make them speak to us again? Or do you kill them? And that’s where Carey’s romantic faux-naiveté comes in. In the end, Harry is imagined as some sort of priest-like figure somewhere out the back of Byron Bay, whose role is to plant trees and tell interesting stories at funerals. I don’t think it’s a sustainable vision. Not everyone can do this. So that’s one of the tensions within the book: it doesn’t really posit any practical solutions. The characters have a kind of tin ear for alternate experiences.

What’s the actual process of writing the play? What do you do? Do you map out certain pivotal scenes and then fill in around them?

I’ve tried that in the past with other adaptations of books. I’ve tried to map out a structure and ‘fill it in’. But that only works so far. What I find useful is to go through the book and colour-code it thematically, according to certain themes you want to bring out onto the stage. So, in the case of Bliss, orange for cancer, pink for female experience, blue for New York (as a metonym for advertising and western culture). So you’ve got this multi-coloured book. Then you go through it and look for the sections which are dialogue heavy, because if the original writer imagines them dialogue-heavy then it’s more theatricalised, in the sense that it resembles a script, as opposed to things which are more narrative-driven. They require different idioms in the act of adaptation. You might want to turn the internalised, non-dialogue stuff into dialogue and you might want to turn the dialogue into monologues or something like that. But you’ve got to be very conscious of it. So that’s my equivalent of a structure.

In the case of Bliss, I think I sat down and started with the third act, and the third act in this case is when Harry is admitted into the insane asylum. I just started writing dialogue from there, lifted from the book, let the tone of the author come out. And this is the important distinction, because I’m dealing with a living writer and not with Cervantes or someone like that who has been dead for four hundred years. You have to, to a certain extent, follow the structure. This text hasn’t reached a point yet where it’s a free-for-all. It’s Bliss by Peter Carey, adapted by Tom Wright, not Bliss by Tom Wright based on Peter Carey’s book. That would be a very different play.

How involved has Peter Carey been in the process?

He has to give permission at all points. So in order to even get permission to start we needed to send a rough treatment of a scene which was about ten to 12 pages long. He came back saying, “that reads ok”, so we had permission to go ahead. But at any point, he could’ve pulled the plug. As I say, it’s still Bliss by Peter Carey, adapted by Tom Wright. Were it the other way around, it would’ve been a set of ruminations and we’d be seeking to comment on Bliss. But I don’t feel entitled, in this exercise, to comment on Bliss; I have to present it and I’ve pushed it as far as I feel I can. An example of that is, and I wrote this rather late in the piece, when Bettina first comes on to the stage. I have her talk to the audience and comment on what Harry Joy is like. I felt like I had license to do that because in the first chapter of Peter’s book, Bettina is written as thinking out loud about what she calls “this conspiracy of men, this almighty brotherhood of frauds”. So we do get to see Bettina thinking about and commenting on this kind of masculine conspiracy against her pursuit of excellence. I turned that into a monologue. But even with that, I thought I’ve got to be careful: I felt comfortable with putting words into Peter’s characters’ mouths but I didn’t want to put ideas into their heads.

How often were you meeting with Director Matthew Lutton while you were working on the script?

Constantly. It was a constant process. But every director-writer relationship is very different. When I worked with Kip Williams on The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui late last year and early this year, I only did two drafts and he provided about two pages of notes. We met, we briefly discussed casting but fundamentally, it was along the lines of “I’ll tell you if something’s not working”. Whereas in the case of something like Bliss, because it had a difficult genesis, a difficult birth, the draft we took to rehearsals was the 12th, and every one of the previous 11 emanations had multiple pages of notes from Matt. He functioned as a dramaturg but he also functioned very much as the prospective director of the piece, and he was directing me as well as the actors. He’d say “I want more…” or “I want a scene where this happens” or “I think we need to lose or shorten that scene”. So by the time it got to the seventh or eighth draft, me as writer, him as dramaturg/director, we got it towards being ready for rehearsal.

What’s the time frame for this process? How long does it take to get from that first draft to the 12th?

One year. Well, actually 13 months. When we did Picnic at Hanging Rock it was a year; when we did The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man that was nine months. In an ideal world I reckon you need to develop a play over a bit longer time. But Australian theatre practice means that season by season there are only so many projects on which you can work, so you tend to work within a year’s timeframe.

Bliss is set in the 1980s. Did you think about introducing any devices to place it more in the now, especially with the world in its current state?

This was a bit of a difference of emphasis between Matt and me. I was interested in viewing Bliss as a work of the 1980s; although Matt wasn’t against that, he wasn’t as interested in seeing it specifically as a 1980s text. For me it functions very interestingly as a text of that time, partly because all of us are (in the world of the play) the children of Harry Joy and Honey Barbara. The narrative voice in the novel speaks from the future as the children look back on Harry and Honey. The action’s all in the past. So in a sense, it’s written in 2018, looking back at the 1980s. And for me that’s important because the 1980s represent a kind of fulcrum moment where Australia left, to a certain extent, protectionism behind – a sense of being a protected species that had to enter the big world of nature or the big world of the marketplace or the big world of capitalism. So for me, time mattered. But for Matt, he was more interested in the character drive and what the characters were searching for. But that’s the kind of interesting business about collaboration. Matt’s understanding of character is very sophisticated, and I trust it a great deal.

I didn’t see this play as speaking a great deal about something specifically 2018. There are many things in our theatre that do. For instance when I was doing Arturo Ui, I felt like that was an adaptation of Brecht which was designed to sit only now and only in this city. Whereas Bliss is, at least in my mind, about the past and as a result it doesn’t have much to say directly about Malcolm Turnbull or about Donald Trump or about where contemporary markets are working.

Tom Wright talks about adapting Bliss – Part Two

In Part Two of our interview with Tom Wright, Belvoir Artistic Associate and writer of the adaptation of Bliss by Peter Carey, we discover some of the complexities of bringing this iconic novel to the stage…

Bliss as a novel luxuriated in surrealist commentary on the hellishness of capitalism – excess and the hallucinations of ego-success. Was it difficult to translate the surrealism of the novel for the stage?

Yes. With adaptations, it’s often what you omit and not what you include that defines the nature of the text. I had long conversations with Matt about whether or not we told the back story (or rather the fore story) of David and what happens to him in his future life. There’s this long section in the book where David is revealed to be a gun-runner and drug-runner in South America, and ends up dying heroically. He becomes one of his father’s and grandfather’s stories. It’s actually quite beautiful. The film version chose to not explore this storyline. And likewise, for similar reasons, we found ourselves having to omit it as well. Already adapting a novel pushes into three hours, four hours and you cannot do everything. But the radical question is then what do you choose to omit? A lot of the characters in Peter’s novel are ciphers, including members of Harry’s own family. In terms of real, fully-rounded characters, there are only four or five of them. And even then I struggled to fit them onto the stage. You have this kind of tedious male protagonist, then you have these two quite interesting female characters who are big drivers in the piece. And then after that, you’ve got this slightly odd character of Joel, who in the novel is somewhat under-developed. And again, I had to cut a great deal of Joel simply to keep the story going. You find yourself caught in that quandary all the time of choosing what you’re going to excise and not what you’re choosing to include.

What are the original readers of the novel, the audience that was reading the book at the time when it first came out going to take away from this adaptation? Some of them probably saw the movie too, perhaps not as many the opera…

There are two questions that work here. One’s going back to your point about the form. There’s a surrealistic form to the book. When it came out in the early 1980s, magic realism was kind of a fashionable style that came out of Latin America. It’s the third world reaching its imagination into first-world minds, and Peter’s getting onto that, coming into New York from the fringes of the world. The whole surrealist thing was kind of international and globalised, but it was also coming out of an Australian tall story tradition, the kind of yarn-spinning I was talking about earlier. None of those things have quite the same direct equivalent on stage. But in the film, Ray [Lawler] was able to find an equivalent style for the filmic world which was kind of an Australian surrealism. Theatre doesn’t quite work that way, because that’s what we do anyway. Theatre is already theatrical; it’s already a magic place. It takes place in the form of language. An elephant can’t sit on a car on stage, not an actual elephant. So the whole thing becomes an exercise in who’s telling the story and whose voice is being privileged at that point. And it changes a bit in terms of its visual style – it becomes a question of who’s telling the tall story, not taking them on face value.

In terms of how it’s going to speak to audiences? What I’d really like people to think about is that period – from the surprise re-election of Malcolm Fraser in 1980 to 1988 and the hideous excrescences of the bicentenary celebrations. That period of eight years when a lot happened: Keating’s banana republic statements, the floating of the dollar, the winning of the America’s Cup, the launching of the new kind of Australian nationalism, Bob Hawke, the convivial, essential good bloke becoming prime minister. A whole lot was going on back then, and I’d like the contemporary audience to look back and ask that biblical question that I put in the program note: what does it mean if you gain the world but lose your soul? For me that’s a key question. But not as an individual, not like some advantaged advertising executive asking that question. Our society: what actually did we do? What Faustian deal did we make in the 1980s?

We’re clearly more materially wealthy than we were then. But our cities are burgeoning and bulging. Our environment is increasingly under stress. Our civil liberties are being subtly but progressively more encroached upon. We’re increasingly culturally fragile but not in a particularly healthy way. Did we sell a great deal of potential long-term diversity and richness in exchange for cheaper whitegoods and airfares? That kind of stuff, for me, is really present. So while you’re in it, actually watching a man who thinks he’s losing his sense of self and finding redemption by planting trees for bees, there are actually conversations taking place behind that about what we all could’ve done and could do when we hit our bliss moments. For me there’s a kind of pivotal moment where Honey Barbara says to Harry, “You keep talking about how you died. You didn’t die. People who die actually change. You haven’t changed. All that’s happened to you is that you thought you died. You’ve had an experience but you haven’t learnt from it.” And for me it’s kind of analogous to what happens to our society all the time. We get these scares but then it’s too difficult for us or it’s paradigmatically impossible for us to know how to really change.

In the play, the character Adrian Clunes (a pharmaceuticals executive), talks about us as a species walking around with eye masks and ear plugs, hardwired not to catastrophise. So the more people tell us that there’s some environmental crisis coming, the less we believe it. Our minds, our systems, and our entire ideologies won’t allow us to absorb the idea that radical change is vital. The natural conservatism of the human species kicks in at that point. In the novel, they’re talking about the fact that half the things you buy in the supermarket are carcinogenic. Whereas now, that speech functions as a kind of climate change speech. So when Adrian talks about how human beings find it impossible to catastrophise, I imagine most people in the audience will think, well yes, that’s why it’s so hard to get genuine climate change policy happening, because everybody’s fine about any form of environmental initiative until it hits their share price.

Why do you think that is?

Well, I’ve actually heard people say that if it’s such a problem, the market will fix it. That’s magical thinking. The market and nature, those two things function really heavily in Bliss. The market and nature do fix things, but they don’t have any necessary ideology. They don’t necessarily work for human good. Neither of them are particularly invested in the idea that individual humans or even the human species has to live. They’re just things that look for the most efficient way of fixing the problem. The marketplace’s solution to environmental degradation or rising sea levels might not be something that the vast majority of human beings are very happy with. It might involve a very rich elite living in glass towers while the rest of the human species drowns. That might be the market’s best solution. I don’t know. Determinism versus fatalism is a really strong theme in Peter’s work, particularly in Bliss. Do you just go with the flow or at what point do you have to make choices? And if you can make a choice, what about the people who aren’t in a position to make a choice? Those kind of moral questions sit underneath. And that’s the key thing for me. You don’t see a lot of that in the action.

What I said before is you see a man who has a near-death experience and suddenly goes through a sequence of unlocked realisations that he is a lot more precarious than he thought he was. He thought he was eternal. He thought he was the blessed Australian male, what Carey describes as “relentlessly complacent”. The key word is complacent. The complacency of the Australian male as opposed to the deep frustration of the Australian female. That’s what you’re watching. And some of it is quite comic, like when Harry goes into the insane asylum and realises that even his own name is something he doesn’t own anymore. Actually, all of us, in some circumstances, are liable to be colonised. That’s what you see. But what’s going on underneath, that’s where the bigger questions lie.

Adaptor's Note: Tom Wright

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
(Mark 8:36)

It’s the early 1980s in Australia. On the TV, ads flicker gravelly masculinity, flogging beer, lemon squash, and a new nationalism for the bigger world we are about to enter.

“We’re gonna have to wake up sometime that everything’s not OK”, warns a Mojo-style eructation on the commercial airwaves. In Fremantle a ‘national hero’ wins a rich man’s yacht race and the country loses its bearings. Everywhere there seemed to be these men; entrepreneurs, raconteurs, filling up space, Good Blokes. One of them was PM. One of them had a resort in Queensland, his ad would croon Too Good to Be True. And of course it was. These Good Blokes were shysters.

Bliss feels like it’s from a vanished Australia in some ways. Carey wryly portrays an Aussie masculine yarn-spinning tradition that wakes up and realises somewhere along the way it became sloganeering for economic nationalism. Henry Lawson and Joseph Furphy have become ponytailed copywriters, fashioning stories that – in the end – celebrate waste, vapidity, and worse. There’s a danger with this book. A privileged man, who has sailed through life as an indulged mediocrity, realises he’s in a Hell, but he can’t see it’s a Hell of his own making. He attempts to find redemption and like Voltaire’s Candide he finds it tending his own garden. It’s a sprawling, two-steps-forward-one-step-back shaggy-dog story, with a strong pulse of romanticism. But when it all boils down, it’s still a story of that Good Bloke. And Good Blokes don’t represent humanity.

Dig a little deeper though and there are other voices, whispering under the big story. Bettina, born in the smell of fossil fuels, who buys the American dream only to find out it’s a crock, and that it leads to folly. Barbara, who lives off the grid, but has to walk into the Underworld to stare down demons. And a panoply of slightly crazed voices that are both familiar and strange.

Perhaps the questions they ask along the way are the point. Of Hell, of cancer, of stories, of cities, of what it is to die. A country, in the early days of rubbing its sleep from its eyes.

Director's Note: Matthew Lutton

Everyday during rehearsals for Tom Wright’s adaptation of Bliss, we uncovered further layers of resonance and more madcap humour in Peter Carey’s 1981 novel.

This is a story about Harry Joy. He is awakening to the Hell he has been complicit in creating and he is only just starting to realise its vastness. He is beginning to understand the destructiveness of historic patriarchy and observe how it is failing and falling. He is desperate to change (he wants to be ‘good!’) and searching for ways to survive.

The story is also about Bettina Joy and Honey Barbara. We experience the rise of Bettina’s genius and her rebellion against mediocrity. We journey with Honey Barbara as she straddles both the country and the city, seeking alternativeness, time that flows like honey, and an understanding of what is beyond the veil of death.

It is also the story of an Australian city. A city longing to be great, and American. One that is full of ambitions and diseases that make beautiful sunsets.

Bliss is also a story about stories; about why we tell them, which ones we value, and how truth and lies blur in the creation of a memorable tale.

The more we rehearse, the more we discover how prophetic Peter Carey’s novel is. The hellish Australia he observed in the 1980s is now in full swing in the 21st century.

We tell this story with an extraordinary ensemble of eight, who play out the five chapters as five different layers of hell. With each chapter we descend deeper and deeper – as Harry evolves and devolves – but the more we rehearse the more wildly we laugh.

Within Peter Carey’s story is a humour ignited from recognising our own flaws and grotesquery, of knowing that there is pleasure in Hell, that others have already found ways to survive, and that there is a place for all of us here.

Podcast: Part One

Nicholas Waxman sits down with Bliss Director Matthew Lutton to discuss this stunning new co-production with Malthouse Theatre and Belvoir. Peter Carey’s Bliss has been adapted for the stage by Belvoir Artistic Associate Tom Wright. The Aside Podcast is based in Melbourne.

 

Podcast: Part Two

In Part Two of his interview, Nicholas Waxman continues his discussion with Bliss Director Matthew Lutton. This stunning new co-production with Malthouse Theatre and Belvoir has been adapted for the stage by Belvoir Artistic Associate Tom Wright. The Aside Podcast is based in Melbourne.