Entertainment

Peter Carey’s Harry Joy reborn on stage: but has he really woken up to himself?

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Written in the early 1980s, the novel is almost eerily prescient, exploring many of the issues playing out in society today. Wright and Lutton were attracted to the novel in part because of that prophetic component.

"The way we see… the advertising world, capitalism and consumerism racing ahead, [Carey] was writing about the collapse of that, about Australia's relationship with America. He's also talking about the way that we avoid doomsday, we don't believe the world is coming to an end. That great ability to not believe the truths in front of us because they are inconvenient. We mistrust the truth."

Carey wrote the book after working in advertising for 15 years and brings an insider's perspective to the ultimate commercial dark art. "It's seductive, it's addictive, it's drug-like," Lutton says. "It can be deeply artistic and seductive and intelligent."

But it makes you want things you don't actually need and can convince you to do things that you don't believe in. So, what is the bigger picture that it serves? That's the million-dollar question. In the play, it's the world occupied by Harry's wife, Bettina, a genius in the world of advertising.

Bliss author Peter Carey has given his blessing to the stage production.

Photo: Steven Siewert

"It brings about her downfall but we tell the whole story of her growing up at a petrol station and being surrounded by oil and her dream of being in the world of New York. Her story of what happens when Harry steps out of the picture is equally important as Harry's awakening," Lutton says.

The adaptation places Bettina and Harry's true love, Honey Barbara, centre stage with Harry, elevating their story.

Adapting a work by an author of Carey's calibre adds another layer of expectation to the production, which makes its debut next month. Early proofs were sent to Carey – who now lives in New York – and he gave it his blessing.

Wright and Lutton were adamant that the novel needed to be interpreted and given a new spin. "We're not doing a Reader's Digest of it. You're always aware other people might come at the novel differently. I think everything we've done is in the spirit of it, absolutely."

According to Lutton, the book is very theatrical. "It's a story about telling stories, which works incredibly well in theatre."

While Wright has written the adaptation, the two shaped it together. "In our selection of material from [the book] we've made sure that we give as much time to Bettina's story on stage as Harry's."

Each of the show's five acts has particular characteristics. The first is all about Harry, who is trying to work out if he's in hell. He gets to chat to the audience about what he's investigating. It's set on a revolving stage, with images revolving around him, which creates a tracking shot effect. "For us it really helps us create a sense of discombobulation," Lutton says.

The novel gives us some big locations for each act, which have been conceptualised as the five stages of hell. "It's a bit Dante-esque," Lutton says. "Going down the rabbit hole, a tour of the domesticity and realising it's hell. The second act is a David Lynch-like setting, the third is suitably mad, the fourth heads back to the house and then on the fifth Harry heads out to the bush. And we're going deeper and deeper into hell each time, it's more and more problematic."

At a certain point, Bettina is comforting Harry after his heart operation. Suddenly, she turns to the audience and says "Actually, I wish Harry was dead".

She's not alone in this belief – the play is littered with people who reckon the world would be a better place if Harry Joy were no longer in it. In large part that's the nub of the story – how does Harry make sense of his life in this dystopian world he helped create? It's an age-old question: what is this life about, how do we manage? Not many get a chance to come back after death: Harry Joy is one of the lucky few.

Beginning a show with the death of the main protagonist means we get to the heart of the action very quickly. Often in life it takes extreme events to prompt dramatic reassessment or serious analysis of how we are in the world, so we arrive with Harry in that shocking moment of clarity and grief and wonder.

The story clearly has elements of a moral tale, but Lutton says "we're really not wanting to bash an audience over the head with a moral".

"It takes Harry to die for nine minutes to wake up. I think a lot of the other characters express a deep frustration that that is what it took… Once Harry meets death, it does change him. He doesn't go on a linear journey after the heart attack. He changes and then he regresses," Lutton says. "It's quite honest in that … creating change in yourself and then in others around you is not simple."

Bliss is at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, from May 4-June 2 and the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir, from June 9-July 15.

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Kerrie O'Brien

Kerrie is senior writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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