Bliss, Caryl Churchill’s postmodern translation of Olivier Choiniere’s original French play, reworked by young directors Jilna Shukla and Ritu Arya premieres at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this week.
Set in the drab locale of a Wal-Mart supermarket, a hospital maternity ward and glossy department store to name just a few, the play depicts a vacuous world dominated by the all-consuming cult of celebrity. Plastic flowers, plastic cameras, preening plastic people, all revolve around the glistening effigy of a 90s era Celine Dion. Viewed through the eyes of those who pore over her life’s every detail in glossy magazine print, Bliss’s characters perform in a stream of consciousness, self-narrating as they tell a tale which takes themselves and the audience down the path of frenetic fandom, violence and obsession.
And the results? Bliss is a dizzying patchwork of voices and interweaving dialogue that is truly fascinating and at times deeply shocking. A frenzied rollercoaster ride that is all at once breathless, sinister, heartbreaking and (somewhat surprisingly) very funny. The play’s fifty something characters are played by an extraordinary cast of just eight who self-consciously assume new roles and identities with a seamlessness that makes it look easy. Is it the doctor being the doctor or the security guard? And what exactly is it that he has in his hand?
The play, underscored by the cellist Harriet Collins who plucks and strums Bliss’s diverse musical landscape from start to finish establishes the menacing undertones from the very beginning. From the tersely plucked, single stringed introduction to the glorious, sweeping Cello Suite No. 1 by Bach to angelic vocals in French from Chloe Green and Sophie Paterson and infinite utterances of ‘Celine! Celine!’ (I lost count somewhere in the hundreds) – Bliss’s sound is rich and textured.
And yet, whilst Bliss is just as much about its sounds, and the language of repetition, it is certainly a thoroughly physical play. Where Bliss stands out is in its excellent, impressive staging. The actors strut and glide against a vast backdrop of magazine covers, shards of glass and endless mirrors, swinging light-fittings, the click/flash of a photographer’s camera – all of which add to the inherent, pervading narcissism. Everything we see is a reflection, a projection. So as the falling darkness echoes our slow descent into madness, we can be certain of one thing: Something is rotten in the state of Celine…
Bliss premieres on Thursday the 5th of August at the C Aquila Theatre in Edinburgh.