In her younger years, Katherine Mansfield led a scandalous life. The New Zealand writer was somewhat of a rebel, and it's this side of her personality that is portrayed in Bliss. Written and directed by Fiona Samuel and starring award-winning actress Kate Elliott, the Sunday Theatre production delves into the short story-writer's hunger for experience.

"She was a very passionate woman," says Elliott, who breathes flirtatious, vivacious life into the character. "She's very alive ... This is a very youthful, exuberant Katherine. As all these things happen to her and then she became more withdrawn and insular."

At age 19 and known as Katie Beauchamp, the young writer struggles to find much to look forward to. It's the early 1900s and the majority of her friends are getting married and planning their futures as housewives. Katie, meanwhile, dreams of travelling, much to the disappointment and frustration of her parents, particularly her mother, who balks at the sexual content of her daughter's writing.

Desperate to leave home, she arrives in London with a small allowance. During the next year of her life, everything changes: the ambitious Mansfield takes singing lessons and plans to go on the road with a performing arts company. She also causes a stir wherever she goes, falling in love, breaking hearts and polarising people.

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Rather than focusing on her literary life, much of the drama comes from Mansfield's tumultuous love life; her intense relationships with both men and women. There's the early love with family friend Garnet, through to a short-lived marriage and steamy affairs across Europe. Mansfield's difficult relationship with her mother is also explored.

Bliss, which received $2.8 million of NZ On Air funding, was produced by Michele Fantl who, with Samuel, was part of the team behind the drama Piece of My Heart, about adoption among unmarried mothers in the 1960s.

"[Bliss] is not a definitive piece," explains Samuel, who consulted with historian and scholar Vincent O'Sullivan. "This is my take on her early life."

Elliott was a joy to work with, she says. "She's very funny. She comes across as naughty and tomboyish."

Bliss also stars Sarah Peirse, Peter Elliot, Tandi Wright and Ian Hughes, and includes appearances from Antony Starr, Chelsie Preston Crayford and Toni Potter.

Elliott is best-known for playing troubled, rash characters, such as those in the films Fracture and Toy Love, and TV shows Insiders Guide to Love and The Cult. (She appears on Shortland Street this week.)

Elliott remembers studying Katherine Mansfield's work at high school; she'd also played the writer once before - in the short film An Indiscreet Journey, based in Berlin - so had already done a lot of research. This time she concentrated on reading Mansfield's journals and love letters to Garnet.

"She's deeply passionate about things but is also self-centred. It's nice playing a character that is flawed, and she's a flawed woman."

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When: Sunday, 8.30pm
Where: TV One
What: Katherine Mansfield's lusty beginnings

- TimeOut