When we tell stories, what do they do? This is one of the central questions animating Bliss, currently on show at Belvoir. Adapted from Peter Carey’s 1981 novel by Tom Wright and directed by Matthew Lutton, the play questions the way that men in Australia tell stories and the impact that it has on all of those who surround them.
Harry Joy (Toby Truslove) is a Good Bloke. A successful ad man in 1980s urban Australia, the world we see on stage revolves around him. In the opening scene of the play, Joy dies for nine minutes, and, after a revelatory out-of-body experience, regains consciousness only to find that the world he has returned to is Hell. His wife Bettina (Amber McMahon) is having an affair with his colleague Joel Davis (Mark Coles Smith), his son David (Will McDonald) is selling drugs and his daughter Lucy (Charlotte Nicdao) is a communist.
While all of these developments may seem like catastrophes for someone like Harry Joy, however, his concern is not fatherly, but rather anthropological. Joy clambers over the set — designed by Marg Howell — thrusting out a voice recorder at his family, in an attempt to understand what kind of world he now lives in. The rest of the plot continues this descending spiral into deeper depths of hell that range from farce to mania as Harry Joy struggles to figure out what story to tell.
Throughout the play there are numerous metatheatrical references to story-telling. From the demands by characters that they be told a new story, something original, to improvisation and questions of whether individuals are sticking to their “script”. As Harry Joy muses aloud, however, the Perspex box on stage becomes opaque and reflects an image of the audience back at us. This suggests that when Harry Joy is questioning whether he lives in Hell, he is really referring to our world, and is only now realising that all along, his world has already been a Hell for everyone but him and his ilk.
This suggestion that the world we live in already is a Hell for all but the white male is further encouraged by a line from hospital chaplain Des Pearce, played by Marco Chiappi, who reminds Harry Joy that “God wouldn’t punish us.” Indeed, God could not even kill Harry Joy, who returns to life through no effort of his own. As those around Harry Joy degenerate — his wife is afflicted with cancer, his children engage in incest — Harry Joy continues to plod along, trying to tell his story.
By the final scene, Harry Joy returns to form. Having moved to an anarchist beekeeping commune, Joy is once again surrounded by those who are in thrall to his storytelling ability. In their beekeeping suits, the characters in this scene resemble angels to signify that we have gone through hell and reached heaven, as Harry Joy is once again able to stand in the middle of the stage and tell a story to a rapt audience.
It is up to the audience to decide whether this reification of the archetypal Good Bloke reinforces his power, or rather undercuts it through dark humour and satire, and we are given ample time to contemplate this as the play continues for almost three hours. Nuanced performances by Chiappi and Susan Prior aside, it’s time the Good Bloke woke up to the reality the rest of the world lives in, and it’s hardly bliss.