There was a sign on the door reassuring people that there would be no audience participation. This made me smile. It was easy to see why such a statement was necessary. You could see the slight flash of alarm in people’s eyes as, on entering the upstairs theatre at the Royal Court, they were each handed a bright blue tabard with a smiley faced logo on the back and told to put it on. Dutifully donning my tabard, I took my seat. Like Andrew Haydon, I was going in to this thing cold and had little idea what was coming.
The production of Olivier Choinère's play Bliss, translated by Caryl Churchill, begins with a sharp blast of Celine Dion’s Power Of Love assaulting us over the speakers, an alarming prospect in itself.
The set has been kept simple: a row of employees’ toilet cubicles in a branch of Wal-Mart. Four actors emerge, each wearing the now familiar tabard, except for one who is neatly shirted and tied. Three of them start to tell a story to the audience, narrating rather than performing, while the fourth, Hayley Carmichael’s lank-haired cashier, sits behind them in one of the stalls, occasionally prompting them and correcting the details of what they are saying.
The actors begin by describing, in loving detail, a farewell concert given by a popular French Canadian singer of power ballads, before she retires from live performance to start a family. But this slowly shifts into something else, something quite different, the tale of a young girl who has been horrifically abused by her family. But the line between these two threads is kept deliberately foggy and the stories bleed into one another.
The play is a strange, shifting thing, designed to unsettle. The press blurb calls it ‘slippery’ and this is apt, in more than one way. There is a fondness for the graphic and horrific in the writing; in his review Andrew Haydon referenced Chuck Palahniuk, whom I also had in mind as I listened to the numerous descriptions of tumors and bile. Underneath all this there was a satirical attack on how the media casually juxtaposes the glossy, groomed lives of the famous with stories of extreme suffering and violence. But it had the good sense not to bludgeon you with this message. The tabards also served a purpose, having the dual effect of connecting the audience with the speakers and also creating the feeling of being at some strange convention or assembly.
Eventually Hayley Carmichael’s character comes to the fore, emerging from the shadows. There is something deliberately odd and other-worldly about her, she controls what we hear and weaves herself into the stories, often creeping to the front to speak intimately to the audience. The set has been designed in a way that it feels as if we are watching things through a two way mirror; reflections, and the line between the real and unreal, are significant throughout.
I must admit I found some of this baffling, and some of it quite repellent (as I’ve pointed out on the Guardian arts blog, I am a ridiculously squeamish sort) but despite this I was hooked. The 80 minutes rushed by and I felt myself needing to know how this thing would be resolved.
As we handed back our tabards at the end of the performance I heard one young American girl turn to her friend and say, in a slightly appalled tone of voice, endearingly failing to grasp the concept of translation: “well, Top Girls wasn’t like that!”
I wonder if Celine Dion's 'people' have seen this and what they make of it? Oh, and it’s a good thing I’m a vegetarian or I would now be steering well clear of prawns for a good long while.