Bliss @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Brid Brennan
Haley Carmichael
Neil Dudgeon
Justin Salinger

directed by
Joe Hill-Gibbins
Olivier Choiniere’s blackly comic play is a strange, shifting thing. Presented here in a translation by Caryl Churchill, it is hard to categorize and even harder to describe without undermining some of its capacity to shock and surprise.

Three performers face the audience clad in Wal-Mart uniforms, bright blue tabards with smiley faces on the back. Standing against the shabby backdrop of a series of employees’ toilet cubicles, they begin to narrate a story, describing the events rather than performing them. As they do so they are occasionally prompted and corrected by another tabard-clad woman who sits behind them in one of the stalls.

There are three narrative strands that intermingle. The first concerns a popular French Canadian singer of power ballads, with a lavish home in Las Vegas, who is about to retire from live performance to start a family; another concerns a young woman who has been subjected to hideous abuse at the hands of her family; the third concerns a nervous young Wal-Mart employee, a fan of said singer, who hides away from her co-workers because she believes her body to be distorted, that she is some kind of inside-out person, that her nerves and organs are on the outside. There is also some hinting that this third woman may have something strange and other-worldly about her. She addresses the audience directly (through the ‘mirror’ that separates her from us) and it is she who connects things together.

There are no clear line between each of these strands, no barriers, they are deliberately allowed to bleed into one another in a way that is unsettling and disorientating. The writing also veers frequently towards the horrific: there is much talk of aborted foetuses, tumours and bile. One sequence in particular plays out like something out of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, like a passage by the author at his most gore-fixated.

In its idiosyncratic and elliptical fashion, Choiniere’s play picks over the way the media casually juxtaposes the glossy, groomed lives of the famous with stories of extreme suffering and violence; it highlights the way that people greedily consume details of both these worlds every time they flick through a magazine or switch on the news. The play is also keen to remind the audience of their complicity in this endless cycle of consumption – on entering, everyone is handed a blue Wal-Mart tabard of their own, to wear throughout the performance.

Jeremy Herbert’s set design places the actors behind a wall within which there is a large rectangular opening, making it appear as if they are performing from behind a two-way mirror, a point that is reinforced by the script. And the way in which the actors address the audience sometimes makes it feel like an assembly of sorts, as if we are one with those we are watching. More lines blurred.

All the performers do an excellent job with the material but it is Hayley Carmichael who eventually makes the greatest impact, as the lank-haired and unnerving Wal-Mart cashier.

If at times a little too baffling, a little too difficult for its own good, this is still a striking and unusual piece of writing, one that doesn’t fit easily into any particular box, a fact that is very much in its favour. It is not always comfortable viewing and I expect it will confound as many people as it delights, but it is definitely worth taking a chance on.

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