14 May 2018 | 6:52 pm | Maxim Boon

"A production saddled with a surprising number of miscalculations."

Matthew Lutton and Tom Wright's new stage adaptation of Peter Carey's novel Bliss boasts some damn fine credentials. On paper at least.

The pair's previous collaborations - a stunning staging of Joan Lindsay's Picnic At Hanging Rock in 2015 and a standout highlight of Malthouse's 2017 season, The Real And Imagined History Of The Elephant Man - revealed an innate synergy between Wright's voice as a dramatist and Lutton's vision as a director. Both of those shows were fearlessly uncompromising, but still remained firmly anchored to the essence of their source material, never exchanging the credibility of the storytelling for piecemeal subversion.

Individually, both Lutton and Wright have shown fine form as adaptors in their own rights. Bliss will be the third major production by Lutton to bring a literary classic to the stage, and Wright's recent translation of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, for Sydney Theatre Company, found a near-perfect balance in the interplay between the tone of the original text and a distinctly contemporary Australian vernacular.

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Given this glowing track record, the expectation was that Lutton and Wright's Bliss would easily live up to its title. But a surprising number of miscalculations, including some in the fundamental approach to this adaptation, seem to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

In Carey's darkly comic, 1980s take on the traditional morality tale, Harry Joy (Toby Truslove), an Ad Executive whose life has been devoted to furthering the toxic mores of the capitalist status quo, dies. But only for nine minutes. When he wakes from this brush with mortality, he sees the corrupt and shallow world around him through a different lens. It is, quite literally, hell. His wife is a ruthless adulteress. His children are drugged-up and incestuous. And the only people that make a lick of sense are the sex workers. The evidence supporting his theorised damnation seems undeniable.

Convinced that he's trapped in this cosmic hamster-wheel, a hellish nexus where condemned souls are the playthings of demonic "actors", he sets about documenting the existential subterfuge. And yet, despite being so woke to this purgatory pantomime, Harry remains perched on the boundary between two realities. On one side, his wife Bettina (Amber McMahon), children (Charlotte Nicdao and Will McDonald), and his wife's lover (Mark Coles Smith) seek to woo him back into the seductive fug of his old capitalist life. On the other, new-age prostitute Honey Barbara (Anna Samson) offers salvation in the guise of a hippy commune of bee-keepers.

There's wit and taboo and irony in Carey's characters, but their theatrical counterparts are drawn with far less edge. Partly, this is a failure of Wright's script, which seems overly mired in Carey's prose. Certainly, this preserves the presence of the novel in this stage iteration, but the sluggish, longwinded dialogue saps the energy and impetus of the story to the point of paralysis. Other winks to subtext, that attempt to play up to the meta on meta parallels between Harry's perception of the world and the medium of theatre, are missing the sparkle and cheek that might bring the audience in on the joke. And largely, this is the production's biggest crisis: there's all the brain-power we've come to expect from Wright and Lutton, but none of the playfulness or irreverence to sell this story's comedy.

To defibrillate the flat-lining humour, Lutton has used some wincingly overblown moments of caricature. They manage to hook a few cheap chuckles, but ultimately feel dislocated and desperate. By turns, other members of the cast feel woefully underutilised, most notably Truslove - a tried and tested comic actor - who languishes in a state of mild befuddlement from curtain up to curtain call.

Most surprising of all, at least for those familiar with Lutton's theatre, is the almost wonton restraint of the design. This director is capable of some truly astounding theatrical coups, and yet the bland, sterile wooden set, with its modest revolve and sedate lighting, offers a stage picture that is maddeningly forgettable.  

It's not that this production isn't thoughtful or well executed - within its own parameters, it is delivered with finesse and polish. But there's no getting past the difficult fact that this is ultimately a failed attempt to bring this story coherently to the stage. It has so little of the spirit that drives Carey's caustic comedy, so little of the mess and outrage and shock value; Lutton and Wright are more than capable of bringing us beauty. Here, they should have delivered us chaos.

Malthouse Theatre presents Bliss until 4 June.