Monday, 7 April 2008

Bliss (Félicité) - Royal Court

Written for CultureWars.org.uk

This is one of those reviews that almost needs a spoilers warning. I saw Caryl Churchill's new translation of Olivier Choinère's play with absolutely no foreknowledge of what the hell it was, and that seems an ideal state for watching it. It's really good. You should go and see it. If you want some kind of context before the spoilers, its got that same three or four actors - interrupting each other, talking over each other - trying to tell one story straight to the audience (can we get a word for this style of theatre? There's an increasing amount of it about) - think Crimp's Fewer Emergencies or Kane's 4.48 Psychosis. The story they're telling, however is impossible to talk about without inserting:

Warning: Plot Spoilers

The story that the four (uniformly excellent) Wal-Mart staff jacketed performers are telling – well, three telling with Hayley Carmichael's enigmatic character darkly prompting from the shadows – is such an intricate Chinese puzzle box/Möbius strip of a tale that to discuss it at any length requires some of its numerous surprises to be blown. It starts off with a wryly ironic, dewy-eyed description of a Celine Dion farewell concert and ends up pretty much back where it starts. In the interim it has telescoped out through the lives of an abused girl and a strange Wal Mart worker who vomits her entire body out through her mouth and turns inside-out, and who may or may not be at once the girl, and Celine Dion, and a mysterious other-worldly agent who links the two.

The way in which this happens is through a disconcerting series of sudden shifts which are not flagged up in any way. So, for a while, the audience is left wondering whether what Choinère has just described happening to someone we think is still Ms Dion might be legally actionable. As further shifts take place we begin to recognise the signs, and the process of negotiation becomes easier. Its the same sort of disconcerting device as David Lynch employed in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, made all the more disconcerting for not being visually accessible.

The tone of the piece is at once playful and horribly serious - the same sort of sarcastic, ironic voice as the one that permeates Martin Crimp's more post-modern offerings, with a fair amount of Chuck Palaniuk-style viscera thrown in for good measure. The way that the piece ranges through the lives of the three or four women it describes sets up a fascinating matrix of possible comparisons and commentaries. That said, Choinère is smart enough not to draw parallels between Celine Dion and either an abused child or a downtrodden Wal-Mart worker, or use the disparity between her enormous wealth and their extremes of poverty and misery to score dubious political points. [I'm not sure I fully agree with Michael Billington's reading of the play as an attack on celebrity worship. But then I'm not wholly convinced that Michael Billington knows who Celine Dion is, although, granted, her full name is never used and she is referred to throughout as simply “Celine”, prompting a good joke involving her fascist French novelist namesake].

Choinère has a real ear for a story and Churchill's translation, well, it doesn't feel like a translation at all. It blows Christopher Hampton's efforts with God of Carnage right out of the water. Add to this Jeremy Herbert's ingenious, subtle through-a-looking-glass design; four perfectly judged performances from Brid Brennan, Hayley Carmichael, Neil Dudgeon and Justin Salinger; plus direction of marked clarity from Joe Hill-Gibbins. This is a fascinating short script (80 minutes, no interval) that has been perfectly realised. Well worth seeing.

3 comments:

Soap Dictator said...

I love reading your reviews. You should review theatre professionally instead of from some blog.

Andrew Haydon said...

Assuming you're not just someone I know taking the piss, I do ocasionally write professionally - Cf. the above. Thank you for being nice, though.

Marion Lavandeira said...

The design of this was nothing short of genius. Were WE the mirror to their reflection? Just to clarify...?

The designer deserves an award for this. Very original and totally engaging even if the material wasn't.