Bliss (Malthouse Theatre)

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Fiona Gruber Friday, 11 May 2018
Published in ABR Arts

The opening of Peter Carey’s satirical novel Bliss (1981), where the body of Harry Joy lies dead on the lawn while his spirit hovers above, is one of the most memorable in modern Australian literature. Harry’s laconic out-of-body narration hovers like a spare and airy jazz riff until a defibrillator jolts him back into the land of the living, and a newly recognised living hell. It’s not an easy scene to stage, and in Tom Wright’s adaptation at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, it’s been dismembered.

Instead of lying there and letting others do the talking, Harry Joy, in his famous grubby white suit, enters the bare stage and tells us the story of how his father met his mother, ‘the vision splendid’, during a flood of biblical proportions. In the novel, this comes later in Part One, partly to establish that Joy is a vivid storyteller. But in the play’s opening scene, another actor steps forward to tell us what we see in the novel; that Harry is about to die, on a green lawn beneath a banana palm, with a cigarette burning between his fingers. Instead of a green lawn, or the bare floor of the stage, Harry enters a small glass greenhouse and expires there.

It is not the most promising of openings but the play improves, thanks to pacey direction by Matthew Lutton and an ensemble cast that crackles with talent and energy. Especially enjoyable is Marco Chiappi’s performance as Harry’s colleague, Alex Duval, who assumes Joy’s identity, in an exaggeratedly languid performance, later in the play. Toby Truslove plays Harry Joy more as a mild-mannered, troubled everyman than as a charismatic Good Bloke, an archetype that Carey uses to sum up the male-dominated, parochial and mediocre society of 1980s Australia. But then, the Good Bloke, with his self-satisfied bonhomie and unexamined sense of entitlement, is what Harry Joy, after his short death, has ceased to be. He is now the Questioning Bloke, the Angst-ridden Bloke, the Bloke with a Social Conscience, who realises that some of the products his successful advertising agency sells cause cancer.

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Published in ABR Arts
Fiona Gruber

Fiona Gruber

Fiona Gruber is a journalist and producer with twenty years experience writing and broadcasting across the arts as a commentator, profile writer, and reviewer. She currently divides her time between Australia and the UK.

Gruber's work has appeared in The Australian, The Times Literary Supplement, Australian Book Review, The Guardian, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Opera Now, History Today, and Art World Australia.

Her profiles of well-known writers and playwrights include John Banville, Margaret Drabble, Simon Callow, Marina Warner, A. L. Kennedy, Francis Wheen, Michelle de Kretser, Toni Jordan, David Francis, Jane Smiley, Angus Trumble, Chris Womersley, David Harrower, Richard Bean, Jez Butterworth, and Moisés Kaufman.

For ABC Radio National alongside sporadic appearances as an opinionated commentator on hot topics, Gruber has made a series of features on writers, artists, theatre makers, and explorers for The Book Show, Books and Arts Daily and Hindsight. These include artists John Wolseley and Vera Möller, writers Robert Macfarlane, Patricia Cornelius, Charlotte Wood, Francis Wheen and Alex Miller, actor Lisa Dwan, and explorer John Helder Wedge.

Gruber also worked for ABC TV as a researcher and producer on its Sunday Arts program.

She produced and hosted The Opening a live-to-air weekly radio arts show on PBSFM between 2003–10, notable for its mix of the very local with the rather famous. And in 2011 she was a regular on ABC 774 talking arts with veteran presenter Derek Guille.

Gruber received a Green Room Award in 2005 for co-founding and hosting ‘Gert's Sunday Salon’, a raffish arts and cabaret club in Melbourne’s Fitzroy.

In 2013 Fiona Gruber started a series of podcasts for the Melbourne Theatre Company which explore ideas around the plays on stage, the wider world of theatre, and the even wider world influencing stage selection.

Alongside her journalism she's currently finishing off a biography of nineteenth-century Australian entrepreneur Alice Cornwell: Victorian gold miner, proprietor of the London Sunday Times, and breeder of miniature black pug dogs.

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