[Review:] BLISS, Etcetera Theatre, London.
This review will consider Bliss, a play written by Phoebe Mills, directed by Léoni Hughes, and currently being staged at the Etcetera Theatre.
This is an excellent performance, well-conceived, well written and marvellously performed — perhaps the best cast I have seen in a while, in fact. The story with which we are presented has good intrigue and is coherent and well structured, if slightly predictable, and characters are adequately established and developed. In need of only minor perfections, this performance has wonderful potential and makes for a most enjoyable and engrossing watch.
I shall start with the story. The very thing that is this performance’s greatest asset is also, paradoxically, its downfall: information about the characters, their context and their setting is not formally introduced to us; we are forced to make our own inferences from the text ourselves. The effect is a slow revelation of truths — about the government initiative, Bliss; the characters’ personal and interconnected histories; the context and cause of not just the suffering of our characters but of their entire world — and this maintains mystery, enigma and hence considerable intrigue. We are forced to be attentive to the material, to look for subtext, clues and implications. We are not simply handled the information and commanded to digest it. This is most effective where engagement is concerned. However, considering the gradual manner in which information is revealed is very different to considering the information itself, its profundity and integrity, and here we have our paradox.
At the end of the performance, we are left with no profound and substantial understanding of the characters’ contexts, histories and relationships. Even expressions of their occupations are left vague and ambiguous. We are left only with somewhat superficial profiles — especially with Madi (Gabrielle Pausey) and Damien (Ciaran Duce) who become increasingly caricatural as the play progresses, mere archetypal spokespeople for Bliss. Indeed, we are given substantial clues as to the type of suffering and experiences that our characters have endured hitherto, with mentions of protests and riots, the loss of family members, and descriptions of Bliss and the government’s intentions within the characters’ arguments and debates. We also understand that the characters are suffering and starving, with their excitement over a handful of potatoes or the mentions of lacking necessities — electricity, heating, etc. — and that these sufferances constitute a common ground for these characters upon which to bond deeply. However, there is still a distinct lack of specificity, meaning that we are left with a notably vague understanding of the world of the play.
How did the protests and riots affect the characters' lives? How is Bliss becoming, seemingly, more and more popular, despite the data leaks? And how did Tate get away with leaking data from the government so freely and with no consequences? How are the other characters — Elsie (Mary Tillett), especially — supporting themselves beyond help from Tate (James Farley) and Amari (Maxine Meixner)? Surely, if Tate and Amari now have enough resources and money to support themselves and the other three characters, then they are not as impoverished and disadvantaged as they are made out to be. Similarly, why are the characters still depending upon homegrown potatoes whilst shops exist to buy Tate's favourite snacks? Who are these shops intended for and how do they keep afloat if the entire world is in financial difficulty? And are the characters not further suffering with a certain ever-increasing nationwide hyperinflation, if these shops are, indeed, open during these troubling times? What is Tate's "quota" and why is he only able to meet and exceed it now? If electricity is so scarce, why, and how, are we wasting it by playing music? And where are all the party props coming from, despite charades being the [costless] game of choice for an impoverished group? All of these questions should exemplify the sheer lack of specificity in this play, arising from a lack of particularisation of context. They also signify that the vague and open ending will also be compromised, furthering this trend.
Even with Bliss itself, what the company actually does with the bodies it reaps — beyond perhaps entering them into a coma-like state and a VR-like simulation — or why there is a 48-hour window during which one can retrieve them; what these ‘experiments’ are actually for; how many the government intend to collect in this manner; how the ‘patients’ will be kept alive, especially if food and resources are so scarce…these are fundamental questions that are left unanswered, and this, unfortunately, does not allow for a mysterious and intriguing concept; it merely allows for a sense of superficiality and a lack of particularisation. In this way, Mills fails to ground and enrich the story and its characters’ lives. My inference is that some nuclear war has occurred — and I welcome that I may be entirely wrong — and this might explain Gaia’s (voiced by Phoebe Mills) soldier-like absence and the characters’ lack of resources, but my lack of certitude here drives me not into an avid investigation into and fantasy about the story but into detachment. This is frustrating because the skeletal plot and narrative is otherwise so well-conceived and clearcut. Despite this lack of depth here, the story is wonderfully communicated and solid in itself, and this is what makes this play so successful.
It is easy to forgive the lack of specificity for this reason, and for the character types with which we are presented. Character profiles are astutely and keenly developed. Each has a somewhat unique idiolect, and the chemistries and relationships between the characters are not only well established but palpable and endearing. This is especially true of Tate and Amari, whose particularised manner of interacting is maintained, dynamic and enriched throughout the play. The cute and familiar manner in which all characters interact, in fact, from spoonings to hugs to repeated shared catchphrases, is wonderfully conceived and equally well portrayed by these bold and well-bonded actors.
With this aforementioned superficiality also comes a certain predictability, however, which somewhat compromises our access to the characters. This is partially due to pacing as well as structure. Immediately after we get a sense of what Bliss is, the next scene sees Elsie revealing that she is going to 'plug herself in'. Similarly, far too soon after Madi's appearance wherein she encourages Amari to do the same, the next scene has her bonding with Tate one last time before disappearing. In this manner, tension is unable to build and all actions are immediate and direct where they ought to be insidious, with such ideas growing to infest within and shape the characters' psychologies and desires until they are compelled, when we least expect it, to act upon them. Pacing is also an issue in the sequence towards the end of the performance wherein Tate and Amari, now left alone, go through the mundane and sorrowful motions of their daily lives: dwindling potato counts, loss of resources, Tate's recurring failure to make his quotas, etc. The fragmented style of this sequence and the short vignettes it presents us are incongruous with the text we have been presented hitherto, which presents us with longer scenes and an unbroken and naturalistic narrative. Complete with a red wash and the sound of a heartbeat, this sequence takes on a far too hammy and literal communication style. Personally, I would remove this sequence and rework this communication of the passing of time and the characters' increasing depression, especially given that the rapid communication of these items causes this interval between Madi's recommendation and Amari's disappearance to become ever shorter.
Despite this inhibitory use of pacing in the text that rather rushes through what is otherwise a solid plot, the cast's delivery is exceptional, and their own pacing rather counteracts this issue. And this brings me on to acting. I have very few negative criticisms as regards the acting in this performance. The cast members are each certain of their character’s intentions, motivations and objectives; each demonstrates great expressivity and adequate emotional range; each maintains great energy and vigour; and all maintain a good sense of naturalism throughout, where made possible by the text. There is also a wonderful chemistry amongst the performers, an achievement which is most commendable, especially given that one performer had only recently joined. An excellent cast.
There are, however, three main areas to which I would recommend further attention be given. Grounding and focusing techniques ought to be urgently employed by the creatives, as almost all members of the cast, with great emphasis on Farley and Tillett, stumble over their lines repeatedly, compromising both the momentum and the naturalism of many scenes. Scenes that require more extreme emotionality from the actors are either somewhat underplayed or far too histrionic. Duce’s outburst of disbelief, for example, is perhaps the weakest portrayal of emotion, far too exaggerated and deliberate. I would recommend here that the creatives focus not on the mere ‘genuine-looking’ representation of their characters’ emotions — betrayal, shock, fear, anger… — but upon the circumstances that their characters find themselves in, acknowledging that emotion is a by-product [secondary] of lived experience [primary], and that this latter should thus take priority in an ‘authentic’ portrayal; emotions will come organically once the actor experiences and responds to the reality of the scene. Finally, the performers' ad libs are far too deliberate and distinguished from the main text, clearly improvised on the spot but stemming from a vague blueprint that has come from repetition during rehearsals. I recommend these exchanges be scripted and concretised, as the performers remain distinctly unsure of what to do in these moments, despite clearly feeling confident in their ability to maintain tension and mood.
Less significantly, I must also note here that the decision to have certain characters speaking softly whilst others deliver the main dialogue, as opposed to having them mime awkwardly in silence on the side of the stage, as per awkward convention, is a most commendable one. An example of what I am referring to here can be found in an early scene, wherein Madi and Amari share an intimate moment together whilst the other characters talk amongst themselves, Amari congratulating Madi on her pregnancy.
Some final notes on set design (by Josh Barrow & Charlotte Keith) and tech design (lighting also by Hughes and sound by Danny Hardwick, with tech operation by Danny Hardwick & Charlotte Keith). This set is marvellously filled with cohesive theatrical properties, making for a most naturalistic aesthetic. All properties are incorporated well and are not overused, despite their abundance. The aforementioned red washes, however, are far too stylised and in conflict with the calmer style of the performance; otherwise, lighting is used to differentiate scenes well. It would be preferable to have the tape recordings play through the cassette player itself, as opposed to through the sound system, for further naturalism. Otherwise, the inclusion of a cassette player has a great symbolic quality, referencing the technological advancements and promises of Bliss against the retrogressive technology available to the common people. Sound effects, as alluded to above, are ineffective in this performance, clichéd and excessive, if adequately designed in themselves.
“An exceptional play; gripping, coherent and wonderfully performed.”
Photography Credit: Phoebe Mills.