THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISSOCIA by Anthony Neilson is a play about Lisa. In the first half Lisa experiences a journey in her world of mental illness, of "Dissocia", (Dissociation). In the second half of the play we see Lisa in a hospital ward being chemically treated for her "mental illness". This is a terrific play. Mr Neilson through the action of the first half has us experience the world that Lisa knows with her illness. The world in her mind. He has us "become in some small way, participants rather than voyeurs." In the second half we see the actual world that she has to function in: A room in a psychiatric hospital. We meet the real people in her life; her sister; her boyfriend, Vince; the Doctors and Nurses. The structure of the play is such that "when she is asked in the second act why she doesn’t take the medication that will suppress the symptoms of her mental illness, the audience – having been deprived the spectacle of the first half…. will understand on a visceral level why she is drawn to her condition."
In the notes to the printed text Mr Neilson talks about the "journey" he took to create this play. He had written a play called THE LYING KIND and had become addicted to an audience that laughs. He discovered that THE LYING KIND worked best with "the kind of people who go to the see a West End musical on special occasions……. I’ve always thought it very dangerous to dismiss populism….. People are looking for something in theatre that they can’t get anywhere else – a sense of live-ness, a certain spectacle. There’s no part of me that needs to see CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG on stage; but all of me wants to see that car fly. We’ve got to reclaim spectacle - the spectacle of ideas, of form, of passion. Audiences don’t want to see what they can see on TV. We must be magical, or suffer the consequences.”
So, like Alice In Wonderland and her extraordinary journey in the Lewis Carroll classic, Lisa (Justine Clarke), after tuning her guitar and snapping a string, finds herself talking to "a voice" and finally opens a door into a "Wonderful World" that introduces her to Victor Hesse (Socratis Otto), bearing a passing resemblance to how we might imagine Sigmund Freud. Victor sets Lisa on a quest to recover "the lost hour" in her life that might explain to her why her life has felt "out of balance." He tells her that her hour "has been traced to a country called Dissocia" and that arrangements have been made for her to assist her in the quest. Off she goes and she encounters a wonderfully crazy collection of characters like the Insecurity Guards (Justin Smith and Matt Day), scape goat (Russell Dykstra), Jane (Michelle Doake) from the Community Crime Initiative working in the Victim Concentration Scheme who stands in as a substitute when victimized and "is to be beaten and anally raped for you"; a Polar Bear who sings a terribly disturbing song; to the land of Lost Property (which has also been lost!!) where Britney (Kate Box) and Lost Argument (Matthew Whittet) and Lost Inhibitions (Matt Day) amongst other Lost Objects reside and leads to a battle with the Black Dog King who (in the text) she recognises, "shaking her head in horror and disbelief " as her boyfriend Vince. She collapses in a Blackness. We return after interval to a hospital ward, design wise "the polar opposite of Act One." No Colour , "no sound effects except the sound of footsteps."
Anthony Neilson, (this is the first play of his I have seen in Sydney), has a reputation as one of the "in yer face", controversial generation of writers (think Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Kane) because of the confronting issues that he deals with. And certainly mental illness is the subject matter here – serious subject matter indeed. But in this work there is (to quote the writer) "a harmony of form and content and the fact that I could legitimately employ music and songs and humour in the first half seemed to be a step further towards my personal holy grail: a truly theatrical theatre, intellectually accessible and satisfying to all, utilising populist methods to address serious subjects." I concur. This is s terrific play. Alan Ayckbourn’s A WOMAN IN MIND is another play (twice produced by the STC) that covers in a similar way the same territory as this, in a comic subversion of expectations.
Generally this is very successful production, although the Pythonesque comedy of the first half is not as sharp as it could be. It has the impression of being just a little blurred. It could do with the tightening and discipline of accuracy that the TRAVESTIES company as achieved over at the Opera House. The verbal games and physical farce is not as clear as it could be. Often opportunities are collided and lost in a kind of mayhem that is not accumulative in its possibilities. We were left, in the audience, sometimes scrambling to follow the text and the journey. Ms Clark seems slightly physically protective and hesitant and lacks in the first half a sense of curiosity or delight in the world that she is in. It is, mostly, just bewildered and confused. The contrasts of experience are not explored widely enough. The safety of the hospital bed and medication in the second act seemed to hold some attraction - I don’t know if that is what Mr Neilson is proposing here. Still the potential of this collection of actors is exciting. Michelle Doake is delightful in every one of her incarnations (including the horrid Dot of the second act). Socratis Otto is spot on with the creation that is Victor Hesse. All of the company have their individual triumphs.
Part of the problem of the confused or blurred action on stage is clear to me, when I re-read the text to discover the last moment of act one, reveals that the Black Dog King, the great depression of Lisa’s Dissocia is Vince, her boyfriend. I did not get that watching the production. In the final great battle at the end of act one all of her allies are killed and Lisa sees the face of the Black Dog King for the first time as he steps into the light. "It is a face she knows only too well. She shakes her heard in horror and disbelief. 'Oh my God – it’s you!' For a moment the lighting suggests we are back in her flat. Vince reaches out – his hands touch her shoulders. Blackness." Ms Potts does not clearly elucidate it for us. As I write this, I think I begin to recollect a figure in a suit downstage with his back to us, in the corner, stepping forward. I think I do. It is, maybe, rushed. Subsequently the moment in the second act when Vince agrees to keep the relationship alive and the next scene where Lisa holds her Polar Bear in her arms, the tragic narrative import and poignancy, for me, was lost.
The Set design by Alice Babidge is as simple and attractive as the writer asks. A green lawn that allows the lighting of Nick Schlieper to make its usual marvellous tricks and glorious contribution to the journey. The Musical composition (Alan John) and the Sound Design (David Franzke) are vivid allies to the story telling. It is a great disappointment that the car does not take flight "into the sky, up and through the canopy of clouds". It merely comes to the front corner of the raised platform in a pool of light and smoke haze. Mr Neilson says "there is no need to see CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG on stage; but all of me wants to see that car fly." It is a little more puzzling that that affect is not staged, when, if you stay in the auditorium and see the whole of the act one floor be raised to form the roof of the Hospital in act two, which is only once alluded to, in the action of act two itself, that the budgetary solutions were not found to bring us that magic moment that defines great theatre. (As the guy next to me said if you have Armani and Audi as your sponsors and still you can’t afford the solution in this theatre, which you chose to do it in, then we are in hard times.) Fly the roof in the interval but don’t fly the car!!! The Costumes, wigs and make up designs by Nell Schofield are a miracle of appropriateness, and witty, and must be meticulously constructed to facilitate such quick changes. Now, there is theatre magic that is really a sleight of hand trick – who would notice unless you were one of the thankful actors.
Now this is a terrific play in form and content and in most of its production values. Not all. But, maybe, time will correct them.
Playing now until 23 May. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.