IT’s a tough watch on so many levels, but Fraser Grace’s play Bliss about 1920s Russia is ultimately rewarding.
Apposite, infused with (much needed) moments of humour, and containing some stellar acting, Bliss charts the integration of Nikita (a formidable Jesse Rutherford) back into society after participating in the civil war.
Nikita is as grimy as he is affected by post-traumatic stress disorder. He looks skeletal, seems to have been dispossessed of all emotion, and finds any form of relationship nigh impossible.
At home, he is reunited with his father Mikhail (Patrick Morris), a chirpy and rather roguish carpenter who likes the odd mouthful of alcohol to keep him keen. Coffins are his speciality and they are in demand – people are dropping like flies.
He is also reacquainted with childhood friend Lyuba (Bess Roche) who is to become his fiancée and is training to be a doctor. She’s cold and hungry, but stubbornly ambitious.
There’s an attraction still burning inside Lyuba, but Nikita is carrying a bagful of skeletons that he can’t let go of. Things don’t work out, resulting in Nikita doing what he is best at – walking for miles and miles, almost starving to death in the process before being found by squabbling husband and wife team Vlass and Paulina – played with panache by Patrick Morris (yes the same Morris) and Caroline Rippin.
Will Nikita and Lyuba ever be reunited? Will they each survive the bitter cold and the constant reality of starvation? (death is never far away). And will they survive other threats that are a consequence of the civil war?
Nikita is the play’s heart and Rutherford immerses himself in the character- his eyes disappear at times inside his head as if he is haunted (ghosts lurk inside his soul). It’s a demanding and intense role which must leave him exhausted, but he’s a tour de force.
Roche is splendid as one of the two level headed characters in the play. Despite hunger, cold and loneliness, Roche’s Lyuba has a warmth and empathy about her. Lyuba and Nikita, Yin and Yang.
Jeremy Killick plays a tramp – curled up under blankets for warmth most of the time and a soul whom Nikita can never quite shake off. He also doubles up as an investigator who seems fed up with his work punishing people with death for minor offences against the state (lucky for Nikita).
Rippin’s Paulina is as gnarled as her Zhenya (a teacher who looks out for Lyuba) is stylish. A marvellous contrast.
The set, designed by Paul Bourne, is simple but clever – with pallets used as scenery. But moving the pallets after every scene slows down the play.
Maybe, it’s deliberate – to emphasise the tiredness of everyone – but it means the play approaches three hours (bring a cushion).
Yet Bliss is a winner (it received a rapturous reception on May 31). Grace has done an excellent job in adapting the short story that the play is based upon – written by Andrey Platonov in 1939. The accompanying music (Michaela Polakova) adds to the play’s authenticity.
Yet again, the Finborough Theatre’s determination to back imaginative theatrical projects comes up trumps. Its work is always ambitious and thought-provoking. A little theatre with a big heart. Check it out.
Bliss runs until June 11.
Photos by Jack-Sain