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‘Bliss’ Review – almost unbearably dark with shades of hope at the end

Bess Roche in Bliss. Photo by Jack Sain. The image has been cropped.

Roar writer Saul Levene reviews “Bliss”, an unrelentingly grim play showcasing the horrors of 1920s Russia. 

Staged by the acclaimed off-West End Finborough Theatre, “Bliss” follows couple Nikita and Lyuba as they deal with the poverty, and famine in Russia during the 1920s, and details the post-traumatic stress disorder that plagues Nikita after the end of a war and a revolution.

The Finborough Theatre is a small space. During the play, there are hardly any props onstage except for a few crates that the cast imaginatively use as beds, lakes, and whatever else they need. With the inclusion of a smoke machine, the space quickly becomes grim and oppressive – which is, of course, the point. 

Jesse Rutherford plays the quiet and disturbed Nikita as he courts, marries, leaves and returns to the continually unfulfilled Lyuba (Bess Roche). Alongside him is a perennial, enigmatic tramp who seems to be laying in the corner of almost every scene. Who he is and his relevance to Nikita, or why he seems to be the only one who can see him, are mysteries that are never revealed.  

Jeremy Killick, Patrick Morris and Jesse Rutherford in Bliss. Photo by Jack Sain. The image has been cropped.

The main theme relayed throughout the play is that of pain. We see the pain of loneliness that Nikita’s father, Mikhail (Patrick Morris), feels continually, the pain of war and its lasting effects, and the pain caused by a bitter environment that plagues characters with sickness and hunger. It’s hard to watch. The play is over two and a half hours long with little to save us from this unremitting sadness. It’s a long time to spend in abject misery.

Fraser Grace has adapted this work from a short story by Andrei Platonov, a writer dismissed by Stalin for being too unflattering of Russia. In some sense, there is tremendous pathos here, with lead Jesse Rutherford giving a marvellous performance that wrenches tragedy-induced misery out of us. But I would have liked Lyuba to have been more than a sexually unsatisfied victim of circumstance tied to her damaged husband and volatile country.  

The play might also have benefitted from a B Plot, something to take some focus away from the tragic main story line. Although the actors did the best they could; and the ending had a glimmer of hope, I don’t know if watching the play was worth the considerable emotional toll.

‘Bliss’ played at Finborough Theatre until 11 June. 

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