Trigger warning: This review, like the play itself, discusses themes of mental health, psychosis and sexual violence.
Don’t leave The Wonderful World of Dissocia at the interval. There may well be a temptation to in Emma Baggott’s kaleidoscopic and unnerving staging of Anthony Neilson’s mental health play, but it’s one to be ‘enjoyed’ – processed feels like a better word, given the sensitive subject matter – in its entirety.
The first act is saturated in surrealism akin to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. Lisa (Small Island’s Leah Harvey) is in search of an hour she has lost, and is soon informed that the fictional world of Dissocia is where she might be able to find it. The wordplay we encounter is clever and creative, as we meet insecurity guards (duo Michael Grady-Hall and Toni Ogbaro are tightly choreographed by Angela Gasparetto) and a literal scape-goat (Archie Backhouse). It’s obvious the settings and characters allude to a psychotic experience Lisa is currently having – there’s the occasional telephone conversations which pull Lisa to the real world, as well as rushing waves which set the unusual Dissocia characters into panic mode – but what makes the absurdity more engrossing than alienating is the choice audience members have. One can either laugh and indulge in the outlandish and, at times, sinister comedy, or explore the wider symbolism the whole of the first act is getting at.
Such ambiguity and extravagance lends itself well to creative direction from Baggott. The premise of the lost hour is explained as a direct and flummoxed Victor Hesse (Leander Deeny) does several laps of Grace Smart’s circular set. As our Alice/Dorothy-like character, Harvey plays Lisa with playful disbelief and timid apprehension – the type which is reluctant to question the volatile environment around them, so as not to make it worse. It’s a similar inclination felt in the audience: to possess some level of disbelief and scrutiny of the artificial, of course, but to otherwise be passive to the troubling nature of Dissocia – and there’s something sinister in us being minded to approach the play in such a way, when characters talk of murder and sexual violence.
The way in which we are drawn in to the world of Dissocia makes the contrasting disillusionment of the second act so striking. The loud, overexposed scenes of the first – both in terms of their duration and their colour scales – are stripped back and replaced with shorter, dry hospital scenes of which many are performed by Harvey and others in complete silence. The tonal shift is raw and impactful.
All of this leaves the door wide open to a return visit to Dissocia for Lisa, and a wide range of interpretations and takeaways for us to dive into. For those familiar with the turmoil of mental health problems, Dissocia may well present unsettling similarities to the spiralling sentiments experienced when in crisis, and explain the almost inexplicable process whereby we only realise the alarming appeal of it all when it is too late. I certainly had an initial concern that The Wonderful World of Dissocia was simply romanticising psychosis, but I feel its underlying message – around just how easy it is to lose oneself in the delusional in an otherwise dull and intense reality – is far darker, relevant and pressing.
The Wonderful World of Dissocia is now playing at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 15 October.
Relaxed, British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted, captioned and audio described performances will take place on 1, 6, 7 and 8 October respectively.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Wonderful World of Dissocia’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated are honest and my own.