Neil Dowden in east London
28th September 2022
Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia is very much a play of two halves. The far longer first act is a fantastical journey into an alternative world called “Dissocia” packed with bizarre incidents and larger-than-life characters, veering between humorous and disturbing, dream and nightmare: it’s a riot.
The ensemble. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
The short, naturalistic second act set in a psychiatric hospital is much slower and more sombre in tone – with all the colour taken out. But it makes sense of what happens in the first half, putting into context the fragmented mental state of a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder. This superb revival of Neilson’s 2004 play at Theatre Royal Stratford East isn’t perhaps able to completely balance its disparate elements, but it’s a thoroughly involving show about a challenging subject.
In Act One we are immersed in Lisa’s hyperactive imagination. A watch repairer from Switzerland informs Lisa that it is not her watch that has lost an hour but she herself, and that she must travel to Dissocia to find it and restore the balance of her life. Via the elevator that her flat has transformed into, Lisa descends to Dissocia where she is met by two comically anxious Insecurity Guards.
In a ludicrously bombastic ritual involving an oatcake-eating Oathtaker, Lisa pledges allegiance to the Divine Queen for protection from the Black Dog King with whom Dissocia is at war. In her quest to recover her missing hour she encounters a rapacious goat and a crooning polar bear before arriving by flying car at the Lost Property Office where there is a hot dog stand attended by various lost souls – as chaos ensues.
Act Two in the “real” world shows the subdued Lisa being more or less force fed medication in her hospital bed by several nurses and doctors, in a repetitive procedure where time has little meaning. Her visiting sister blames Lisa’s selfishness for causing the family problems, while her boyfriend has had enough of her manic episodes. A siren call offers escape.
Dominique Hamilton and Leah Harvey. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
This is brilliantly written, innovative drama from Neilson, who offers a disorientating, counter-perspective on mental illness without cure. He made his name in the Nineties as an in-yer-face playwright confronting audiences with unsettling stories filled with sex, violence, and macabre comedy.
The Wonderful World of Dissocia is certainly dark at times, as well as poignant, but it’s far from being a tough watch with its free-wheeling exuberance and laugh-out-loud zaniness. There is a mix of influences including Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tales, The Wizard of Oz, Ionesco’s absurdist theatre, and Monty Python’s surreal sketches. But Neilson has his own distinctive voice conveying unpredictable edginess.
Director Emma Baggott pulls out all the stops in this mind-bending adventure, making sure the audience goes with the flow alongside the protagonist in a place that has its own strange, internal logic. Grace Smart’s eye-catching set and costume designs suggest a psychedelic pop-out storybook in the world of Dissocia, while the stripped-back hospital scenes are contrastingly effective. The immediacy of the show is much enhanced by the startling lighting effects of Lucía Sánchez Roldán and the atmospheric sound design of Alexandra Faye Braithwaite.
Leah Harvey’s Lisa – centre stage throughout – always compels our attention and sympathy, as she struggles to get a grip on reality in a constantly shifting world: she beautifully differentiates between angry moodiness with the repressive hospital staff and calm rationality with the “abnormal” Dissocia inhabitants.
There is fine, multi-roling support from the rest of the cast. Leander Deeny is the intense watch-repairer who asks for some urine to drink, Tomi Ogbaro amuses as an Insecurity Guard with low self-esteem, and Daniel Millar is a farcically camp Oathtaker. Archie Backhouse proves to be a treacherous scapegoat, Dominique Hamilton is a clipboard council worker who acts as proxy victim, and Phoebe Norton plays a Kafkaesque hot dog seller who claims to have lost the lost property office, while Michael Grady-Hall is the unsympathetic boyfriend who cannot comprehend Lisa’s rich interior life.