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Director Matthew Lutton Explains Why Ignorance Really Isn't 'Bliss'

1 May 2018 | 10:58 am | Maxim Boon

"This show is about asking one really important question: when we awake to our problems, what do we do with them?"

Later this year, director Matthew Lutton is set to conjure a world-ending apocalypse on stage, when he collaborates with Melbourne-based playwright Declan Greene on a new adaptation of Lars von Trier's neo-noir epic, Melancholia. Depicting a collision between two celestial bodies through the medium of live performance is an audacious undertaking, but this cosmic catastrophe will not be the most ambitious theatrical vision created by Lutton in 2018. Ironically, that distinction will be held by a narrative anchored to one man's personal epiphany.

In the latest addition to his canon of literary adaptations, Lutton will once again join forces with dramatist Tom Wright - with whom he collaborated on an astonishing production of Joan Lindsay's Picnic At Hanging Rock in 2015 - to create a new staging of Peter Carey's 1981 novel Bliss. "It's going to be a big show," Lutton explains with a smile. "It's the largest show I've made: 62 scenes, in five acts set in five different theatrical worlds, clocking in at around two and half hours. It really is huge!" After its premiere in Melbourne, the production will transfer to Sydney's Belvoir St Theatre in June.

This darkly comic parable centres on Harry Joy, played in Malthouse's new production by Toby Truslove. An archetypal white-collar city fat-cat, Joy embodies all the corruption and social rot of our self-absorbed, capitalist society. However, after surviving a near-death experience (in fact, Joy dies for a full nine minutes following a heart attack), he begins to believe the urban sprawl around him is hell — quite literally. In its broadest strokes, it's a narrative that explores the nature of subjective reality and how our individual emotional lens can radically alter the way we perceive the world. It's a story about telling stories, with Harry Joy, an advertising executive who trades in fantasies and falsehoods, at its focal point. But it's also a story that is innately political.

It's been more than 30 years since Carey penned this cautionary tale, which has been adapted twice before, as a film by Ray Lawrence in 1985 and an opera by Brett Dean in 2010. However, Lutton believes the politics of Bliss have never been so relevant as they are today. "It's very much a metaphor for how unhealthy our culture is. But it's also about waking up to the possibility that there could, under the right conditions, be a downfall of the patriarchy; it's about waking up to the idea that change is possible," Lutton says.

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"This show is about asking one really important question: when we awake to our problems, what do we do with them?"​

"In Harry Joy's case, it's waking up and suddenly realising that the world around him has been in desperate need of change for quite a while, and that he can play a role in that. But he also struggles to work out what that change might be. He identifies his worldview and his way of living as a problem, but he can't just erase himself or the culture to which he belongs. He can't just suddenly not be a straight white man. And I think that question, about what ways we can personally affect change, is something a lot of people are asking themselves right now."

Lutton's work, both as a director and theatre curator, has always had a political undercurrent, whether expressed through the diverse representations in his programming for Malthouse, or in the narratives he has opted to articulate on stage. In Bliss, however, Lutton is exploring perhaps the most overtly polemic material of his career, through a plot that connects to the fulcrums of many political and moral concerns at once, be it gender discrimination, social exclusion, economic corruption or ecological decay.

"There's a moment that's happening in Australia and around the world right now, and it's a moment about awakening. Some people have to wait a very long time for it and others are sort of shocked at just being woken up, and I think there's something really interesting about telling a story that features people at various different stages of that process, who have conflicting ideologies and conflicting views on how you make progress," Lutton explains. "I think in many ways, Bliss is about how that conflict between ideas can lead us to a stalemate - when competing arguments brings us to a place of perpetual stasis. So, in that situation what is the circuit breaker? That isn't rhetorical, it's a genuine question Carey poses, I think. There's the idea that we could go back to nature, but that doesn't work completely as a solution either. So, for me, this show is about asking one really important question: when we awake to our problems, what do we do with them?"

More than three decades after its first publication, the essence of Carey's story undoubtedly strikes more than a few chords with the chaos and conflict of our post-Trump, #MeToo, climate-changed world. But beyond its sentiment, there's also significance in the substance of this production: a new work of Australian theatre, with an ambitious vision, resourced - both artistically and financially - on a grand scale in a way that only a handful of companies are prepared to do in this country.

As commercial pressures have seen other theatres opt for crowd-pleasing potboilers over new or untested work, the privilege of having such creative freedom is far from lost on Lutton. "Realism has a certain limitation of scale to it. But once you explode out of the domestic, there's something so joyful about creating worlds beyond those limits," he says of his personal brand of stylised storytelling. "For me, theatre-making has to be about keeping the art form alert by not being complacent in the ways we tell our stories. It's not about reinventing the wheel or having some kind of ego trip, like 'I will show you the new kind of theatre!' But it is about trusting your own ideas; that if you tell stories in a different way, you might reveal different things."

Malthouse Theatre and Belvoir presents Bliss from 4 May at Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, and from 9 June at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney.