Review: Bliss, Finborough Theatre ★★★★☆

by Chris Dobson

Fraser Grace’s play Bliss begins in Beckettian fashion, with a tramp (Jeremy Killick) shuffling silently across the stage. For some reason, Nikita (Jesse Rutherford), the play’s protagonist, seems to be tormented by the tramp’s appearances.
The setting is Russia, 1921. Nikita has returned home, but his experience as a soldier in the Civil War has changed him. His fiancée, Lyuba (Bess Roche), tries her best to support him, but Nikita’s trauma isolates him. It should be poignant, but because we – unlike Lyuba – have not seen the pre-war Nikita, it is difficult to gauge how exactly Nikita has changed. The lack of chemistry is by design – Nikita’s PTSD makes him awkward and nervous – but as a result, it is hard to root for Nikita and Lyuba’s romance, until one touching scene where they share a dance.
Jesse Rutherford and Bess Roche. Photo: Jack Sain

The first act feels drawn-out; it may have been director and designer Paul Borne’s intention to emulate the slow pace of a Chekhov drama, but without the humour of Chekhov, the creeping realism ends up more dull than compelling. Thankfully, the second act is much tighter, with a more tangible villain than PTSD present on stage to focus the action: A Soviet investigator, played with menace by Jeremy Killick.

From Beckettian to Kafkaesque, the play takes a dystopian turn when Nikita is caught in the crosshairs of Soviet suspicion. Nikita’s suffering stands as a microcosm for the poverty and despair of millions at that time, making the play’s title all the more ironic, as the search for bliss proves ultimately futile in the Soviets’ ‘New World’. The context may be historical, but the play’s commentary on war, gender roles and class disparities is relevant today also. The dehumanisation of homeless people is given especial focus, with such individuals referred to as ‘creature’ and ‘it’ in the play.
Patrick Morris and Caroline Rippin. Photo: Jack Sain
Patrick Morris deserves especial praise for his portrayal of Mikhail, Nikita’s father, a lecherous old man akin to Willem Dafoe’s character in The Lighthouse. Morris is also superb alongside Caroline Rippin as Vlass and Paulina respectively, a married couple who like to bicker, call each other ‘comrade’, and slyly bend the rules that bind Russian society in the wake of the Tsar’s assassination. Little has changed for the better for the peasantry, and indeed the play suggests that much has changed for the worse. Beauty itself has become taboo in this new world order.
In line with the play’s tone, the set design is harsh, consisting mainly of wooden crates, but it is overly complicated, resulting in prolonged scene changes which composer and sound designer Michaela Polakova’s evocative score can only partially cover up. Ash Day’s lighting design is simple but effective, and the intimate performance space of Finborough Theatre assists in binding the audience to the characters on stage, whose lives feel at once remote and painfully close. Fraser Grace has transformed a 1939 short story by Andrey Platonov into a bleak tragedy which, if not ground-breaking, is certainly moving.

Chris Dobson is a freelance journalist from the North of England. He now lives in North London and is passionate about theatre, film and literature.