It features the funniest scene ever written about a woman being anally raped by a goat. It includes the most poignant song ever sung by a morose polar bear. And it riffs on some of the silliest gags ever told about insecurity guards and a lost lost property office. But behind the “Alice in Wonderland” surrealism and groan-worthy humor, Anthony Neilson’s wildly imaginative play carries a serious purpose. As well as being delirious fun, “The Wonderful World of Dissocia” is an affecting drama about mental illness.
Winning five Scottish theater critics gongs after its brief run in the 2004 Edinburgh Intl. Festival, Neilson’s thrilling production has been revived by the National Theater of Scotland for a major U.K. tour, including a run at London’s Royal Court. Fielding the same cast and crew, the show retains all its offbeat charm while revealing more dark edges in its portrayal of a woman suffering and enjoying the highs and lows of manic depression.
The play’s title refers to dissociative disorder, the medical term used to describe people separated from reality as a result of trauma or mental illness. Neilson, who with Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill was among the “in yer face” generation of 1990s British playwrights, presents the State of Dissocia as a wonderful Oz-type world ruled by its own eccentric logic and joyous unpredictability.
It’s an inspired decision for two reasons. First, it gives the audience a highly entertaining time, quite counter to what is expected from a medical drama. Second, it allows the playwright to demonstrate how attractive the manic cycle of a depressive illness can be. If the Lewis Carroll-style fantasy world encountered by Lisa Montgomery Jones, heartbreakingly played by Christine Entwisle, is typical of the dissociative experience, it’s no wonder she didn’t take her medication.
Journeying onto Miriam Buether’s steeply sloping, wallpapered set, Lisa meets an eccentric cast of characters as she goes in search of the hour she believes she lost when the clocks changed during a transatlantic flight.
Neilson’s staging and story continually surprise with their imaginative twists, but behind the knockabout comedy, uplifting song and dazzling fantasy is a disturbing edge of danger. A war is raging in Dissocia between the Black Dog King (the forces of depression) and Queen Sarah of the House of Tonin (serotonin, the compound used to correct clinical depression imbalances). This means even in her most carefree moments, Lisa can’t escape feeling all is not as it should be.
This is subtly underscored at moments of stress by Neilson feeding in the telephone voice of Lisa’s boyfriend, who clearly can’t make sense of her ramblings.
Were this to be the play in its entirety, we’d be entertained enough, but Neilson’s masterstroke comes after intermission. He shifts the perspective to show Lisa heavily sedated in a hospital room, and, in a sequence of brief scenes so uneventful they make “Waiting for Godot” look like “Hellzapoppin’,” the audience is plunged into inertia. Scarcely able to speak to the indifferent nurses and uncomprehending relatives, Lisa has no words to express the wonder of Dissocia, nor do the nurses and family have any way of empathizing with her.
Even seeing it for the second time, it’s a shocking juxtaposition with the play’s first half — a tremendously brave piece of stagecraft that carries both insight and heart.