It’s 1921 and while Nikita (Jesse Rutherford) returns home from the Russian Civil War, he watches a tramp (Jeremy Killick) walk along a river. Nikita looks lost and haunted as he stands watching, like a spectre, Rutherford does an excellent job showing how Nikita has been broken by the war.
Back home, Nikita meets childhood friend Lyuba (Bess Roche). In this cold and hungry land, they find something in each other, but this relationship seems more out of necessity than love. Not until much later in the play do we get any hint that they truly care for each other. Like Nikita, Lyuba has been beaten down by circumstances.
There is an odd turn into almost farce during the play’s second half, the mechanisms of the Soviet Union coming to the fore. We first hear the impact upon a market couple (Patrick Morris and Caroline Rippin) and then see it further when an Investigator (also Killick) accuses Nikita of theft. This all feels unnecessary. Nikita’s journey is unaffected by any of these events, and his self-inflicted punishment or penance continues.
The set is made up of wooden crates and pallets, moved around and placed together for each location. While initially effective in reinforcing the narrative of rebuilding and revolution, as the play goes on it quickly loses impact. With a run time of two and a half hours, it instead begins to feel that these set changes could be moved along more.
Even with the small moments of hope and optimism, mainly offered by Lyuba, Bliss is almost unrelentingly bleak – the horrific aftermath of war overtakes everything else. Thankfully there are some strong touches to break this up, especially with the theme of the river, first to bring Nikita home and then to take him away again later. And we are left to wonder if the tramp is an apparition created by Nitkia’s shell shock? Killick has a thankless role as the tramp but he does make the most of it with an intense and unsettling presence.
There is a story in here about the damage war can do to the mind and human spirit. But Bliss is just too long, with too many repeated, lengthy set changes. It unfortunately overstays its welcome.
Written by: Fraser Grace
Directed by: Paul Bourne
Sound and Music Composition by: Michaela Polakova
Design by: Paul Bourne
Bliss plays at Finborough Theatre until 11 June. Further information and bookings can be found here.