It is hard to get a grip on this new 90 minute play, Bliss, by the French Quebecois playwright Olivier Choiniere, but impossible to lose interest, if only because you never know where it’s going and why. And also because Caryl Churchill has done the translation and has made it sound like something she might have written anyway.
The whole experience is bizarre. You are compelled to don a Wal-Mart workers’ jacket on the way to your seat. And with it comes the assumption that you either know or care about Celine Dion, the Canadian diva, beyond trying to forget that she sung the title song in the film Titanic. Knocking Celine is a national pastime in Canada; are we quite so concerned?
Dion is never mentioned by surname, but her husband in the play is the unseen “Rene” her real-life partner and Svengali. The unseen cast of other characters include Celine’s family and a sick girl, Isabelle, her number one fan, lying in bed light years away from her idol’s boudoir in Las Vegas.
I always remember that Dion famously had a transforming nose job early in her career, or her life, the two always merge. And that is the sardonic point of the play, which brutally juxtaposes the spectre of stardom with the distant reality of humdrum, tragically average existence (without mentioning the nose job).
Wal-Mart is the giant supermarket, of course, the transatlantic equivalent of our Woolworth and Sainsbury’s combined, but that is another aspect of the play that doesn’t really reverberate, unless you can quickly translate yourself into “foreign theatre” mode. The actors are the sententiously nominated “Oracle” and three Wal-Mart employees, stuck on ideas of celebrity in their magazine section.
The play is written in third person narrative, so nobody is ever quite who or what they say they are. They either give you information or take an attitude. The moral centre resides with Hayley Carmichael as the free-floating Oracle while Brid Brennan is a cosmetics salesperson (Celine has a perfume range in her name), Neil Dudgeon a department manager and Justin Salinger a rather recalcitrant display assistant.
Joe Hill-Gibbin’s production sags in the middle but otherwise evinces the right sort of edginess, even though the Wal-Mart jackets don’t mean very much, and you can’t even take them home as souvenirs. Jeremy Herbert’s design is contained within a rectangular frame which defines us as voyeurs, aided by Nigel Edward’s canny lighting and Christopher Shutt’s discreet sound score (Dion fans may have wanted more big blasts).
Bliss is one of those plays you are going to have to read after you’ve seen it. I have read it. I may have to read it again. And then, if I’m feeling self-indulgent, I may go back and see the show again. I won’t be adding to my Celine Dion collection, though, that’s for sure.