Rarely do I see a play that both infuriates and engages me in equal measure. Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World Of Dissocia is however one of those plays, managing the not unimpressive task of being both laughably heavy-handed and curiously compelling at the same time.
Neilson has recently been busy giving voice to his belief that a lot of modern playwriting leaves audiences: “bored, bullied and baffled.” The way he talks, it’s as if he has found some magical solution, created something that won’t do any of those things. Dissocia is a play, he says, that everyone will get on some level.
I’m not so sure about that. It has its moments certainly, its flashes of brilliance but they are often undercut by a kind of swaggering overconfidence. The play itself is about a young woman called Lisa, who in the first half is lost in her own internal world, a land called Dissocia. It’s a colourful place, a landscape that’s a wee bit Wizard of Oz, a tad Alice in Wonderland with a whole heap of The League Of Gentlemen thrown on top for good measure.
Lisa’s on a quest. She’s searching for a lost hour the clocks went back while she was crossing over time-zones on a flight from New York, and she has ended up minus one hour, her life unbalanced as a result. She knows this because Viktor the Swedish watch-mender tells her so. He also tells her she can retrieve her hour by entering the land of Dissocia, where a war is underway between an absent queen and a malevolent Black Dog King.
The second half is completely different from all that is gone before. Now Lisa is in hospital, having clearly suffered a psychotic episode. Whereas the Dissocia episode consisted of music and noise and wildly over the top, almost panto-esque acting, these scenes play out against a sterile white background, with minimal dialogue and naturalistic performances. Lisa takes her medication and receives awkward visits from her sister and boyfriend. The set, in an effective, unsettling touch, is separated from the audience by a glass panel and the sound in these scenes is slightly distorted as a result.
Despite my reservations, the play works reasonably well on its own terms. Though that’s not to say there aren’t some very heavy-handed and poorly judged moments in the Dissocia scenes. The low-key ending, though touching, also seemed rather mishandled and I’m not convinced Neilson is saying anything particularly new or enlightening about mental illness. Miriam Buether’s set makes Lisa’s inner world soft and inviting (in stark contrast to the cold hospital she ends up in) but the overriding feeling was one of a production trying too hard.
Fortunately Christine Entwistle is superb as Lisa, acquitting herself in both disparate halves of the play. The other actors however, hopping between roles and playing things wildly over the top in the Dissocia scenes don’t really get a chance to shine.
Neilson’s play left me at times both angered and amused, and judging from the reactions of other people in the audience it seems to generate extreme reactions in people. Some sat stony-faced throughout others clearly adored it, applauding wildly at the end. What was impossible though, was to just sit there passively soaking this stuff up. On that level it definitely succeeded.