Roar writer Rachel Cooke reviews “The Wonderful World of Dissocia”, a production that delves into the internal and external life of a woman in the midst of a mental health crisis.
“The Wonderful World of Dissocia” is an immersive experience that takes you into the mind of a young woman suffering from dissociative disorder. Written by Anthony Neilson and directed by Emma Baggot, the first act of the play is bright, musical, and funny; hosting a cast with shocking talent and carrying a storyline that goes from ridiculous to suddenly profound.
We are introduced to Lisa Jones, a woman who has seemingly lost an hour of her life while on a flight back from New York and must enter the world of Dissocia to find this lost hour. Brilliantly played by Leah Harvey, Lisa is strong, bold, and determined to recover her life’s stability, which hinges upon this hour. Since losing this hour, Lisa has not seemed to be able to control the pervasive sense of mania that has been taking over.
The first half of the play is clearly allegorical; the madness that characterizes the world of Dissocia represents the chaos of Lisa’s mental state. Upon arriving in Dissocia, Lisa seems to go along with the absurdity, reassuring the ‘insecurity guards’ that they are lovely people, being comforted by a talking bear, and singing and dancing along with the cast. However, as the play progresses, Lisa becomes increasingly desperate to find her lost hour and stabilize her life. Though vibrant, the first act carries an eerie undertone throughout, a dubious sense that things in Dissocia are not quite right. A talking goat attempts to assault Lisa, there are warnings of a Black Dog King and his army, and many residents try to prevent Lisa from finding her missing hour. It becomes increasingly clear that, though funny and lively, things in Dissocia are suspiciously peculiar.
The second half of the play is a jarring transition into Lisa’s physical reality which strongly contrasts with the more joyful first act. We see Lisa recovering in a hospital room. The set is bleak; grey, quiet, and cold. Having just travelled through Lisa’s charismatic and vibrant inner world, the audience is able to have a special empathy for Lisa’s situation – an empathy that her own family does not share. Lisa’s sister accuses her of being selfish, and her boyfriend, Vince, accuses her of not truly wanting to get better. Lisa’s family is unable to comprehend what she has been through. This is a moving and poignant insight into the reality of mental illness, showing that recovery can be more uncomfortable than succumbing to the illness. Submerged in Dissocia during the first act, Lisa had simply been carried along on its manic tides. However, once the real world sharpens back into focus, Lisa is forced to try to apologize, remedy relationships, offer explanations, and painfully piece her life back together.
“The Wonderful World of Dissocia” is like a tumble down the rabbit hole into wonderland. Each of the characters is spirited and arresting to watch. The world of Dissocia is easy to fall into and be carried away by before the sharp awakening into the reality that ties the story together. Posing the peculiar and ridiculous in juxtaposition to the moving and powerful, Anthony Neilson delivers a story that will be memorable for weeks to come.
“The Wonderful World of Dissocia” is playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 15 October. You can book tickets here.