Writer and director Anthony Neilson has remarked of his new play that: “If you like Alice in Wonderland, but there’s not enough sex and violence in it, then this is the show for you”. And so begins the descent into his intoxicating, fantastical word of Dissocia, a place that is both magical and disturbing in equal measure.
Yet this is not a play merely depicting an escapist dreamscape, it is also a haunting and deeply moving meditation on the nature of mental illness. Neilson expresses a wish to bring the “spectacle” back to theatre, and whilst the overwhelming hyperbole of the West End is not to everyone’s taste, to dismiss the element of entertainment in a performance is, perhaps, to have a limited view of ‘serious’ theatre. In an age where audiences are fought for alongside film and television it is time to “reclaim the spectacle of ideas, of form, of passion”; Neilson is candid in his view that as a production “we owe the audience”.
One of The Wonderful World of Dissocia’s greatest accomplishments is its ability to deal with “serious subject matter through songs and jokes” and leave the audience both crying with laughter and even real tears, such is the nature of this desperately moving piece. This feat is achieved by Neilson’s structure; the play is one of two utterly polarised halves. Whilst the first is our joint adventure with the protagonist ‘Lisa’ as we journey through the friendly and brutal aspects of Dissocia, the concluding half of the play explores what Neilson describes as a “deadening process”.
We move as far as is possible from the extremities of Dissocia and join Lisa in reality, that of her stark, hospitalised existence. It is only through the juxtaposition of these two locations and the acute transformation of Lisa’s company that the audience’s pleasure in her exploits in Dissocia evolves into an intense empathy for her and the frustration that accompanies her situation. Although the production is multifaceted in the possible interpretations it draws, it does most certainly raise the question of “why some resist taking medication”.
Whilst Dissocia does explore this concern, Neilson is quick to clarify that the play is by no means “a debate” but “an insight into how (Lisa) might feel”. Part of the satisfaction of watching the play is its reluctance to provide any conclusive answers. Neilson is wary of “narrow” productions that are perhaps too “issue based” and indeed it is refreshing to experience something that engages with controversial subject matter and yet seemingly has no agenda. Arguably, to explore the subject of mental illness is to enter an arena which can provide no concrete answers, such is the “subjectivity of one person’s experience”. The audience lives through the very fantastical journey of Lisa; in consequence most of the bizarre rituals and outrageous encounters of Dissocia are a perverse amalgamation of features and experiences of her life. Simultaneous to this subjective adventure, the play displays scope and broadens to incorporate an entire spectrum of influences with the subtle absorption of Lewis Carroll, The Wizard of Oz and even psychedelic ‘70s furnishings.
Equally, comedy plays a central role; it really is a laugh out loud performance with elements of Monty Python and even the Marx brothers. Neilson is an artistic associate of the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) and it is with this company that the production is currently touring. Originally written and co-produced for the 2004 Edinburgh International Festival, such has been the sensational critical success that the play has been revived this year. It is one of the most original and affecting pieces of theatre I have experienced and I urge you to witness this hilarious, beautiful and thought-provoking piece for yourselves.