Bliss, Royal Court, London
Friday 04 April 2008
Before the Quebecois Olivier Choinière's play begins, we're left in no doubt about its take on society's obsession with celebrities. Each member of the audience at Joe Hill-Gibbins' production is issued with a blue Wal-Mart vest, before entering a barn-like space and looking through a frame at a public toilet where the graffiti is in mirror writing. Before the cubicles are a Wal-Mart manager and three employees, the lettering on their badges also written from right to left. We will be told, more than once, "I'm looking at you. You're looking at me," but, by then, most of us will have got the idea: I am you and you are me and we are all guilty.
Translated by Caryl Churchill, Bliss, like her own writing, blends reality and fantasy, but in a way that makes one feel sorry for at least one celebrity. The Wal-Mart workers tell us about a local girl called Celine who becomes a famous singer, marries a man called René, commissions a photographic record of her motherhood, and lives in Las Vegas. (No last name is mentioned, but all this is true of Celine Dion.)
They go on to say that Celine miscarries, a nurse flushes the "big red prawn" down the toilet, and Celine's mother, father, and brother then engage in a brawl: "She keeps hitting him, short little blows, but hard... The Father grabs the mother by her hair and drags her to the broken plate... The Father rubs her face in the pieces... The Father swings round and smashes the Brother against the fridge... Father spits in the Brother's mouth."
We also hear about Isabelle, Celine's greatest fan, who, dumped at a hospital by the family who have tortured her, vomits black bile, then her organs, then her bones. She goes to work at Wal-Mart, but is not popular (her intestines stick out), and is taunted as a "spastic" (Dion raises money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; her niece died of the disease). But one day Celine comes into the store and smiles at Isabelle; she is ecstatic.
One man's trenchant commentary, I suppose, is another's heavyhanded sadism, but I know in which category I'd put this. The actors, especially the amiable Justin Salinger and the radiant Brid Brennan, are far more subtle than the playwright and give Bliss its only humanity. Putting costumes on the audience is a limp gesture toward complicity when the play makes both celebrities and their downtrodden worshippers into absurd and sordid figures for the middle class to ridicule.
Bliss to 26 April (020 7565 5000)
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