The Wonderful World of Dissocia | Sydney Theatre Company

The Wonderful World of Dissocia | Sydney Theatre CompanyLeft - Justine Clarke and Russell Dykstra. Photos - Brett Boardman

Anthony Neilson’s
play, The Wonderful World of Dissocia, expresses the roller-coaster ride of coping with mental illness, contrasting the hallucinatory madness experienced when not taking medication with the sterile lifelessness of hospitalisation and sedation.

Be warned that The Wonderful World of Dissocia is a play made up of two parts which are entirely different from each other in style and tone. The first is the hallucination; the second is the sedation.

Commissioned for the 2004 Edinburgh International Festival, it proved such a hit that it went on to a national tour and a season at London’s Royal Court Downstairs. Anthony Neilson is a highly regarded, new generation, playwright who is interested more in evoking a reaction in his audiences than providing a message.

The main character, Lisa Jones (Justine Clarke), is a young woman suffering from a dissociative identity disorder. She is visited by a Freud-like Swiss watchmaker who tells her that the reason she is feeling out of kilter is that she lost an hour of time during a recent flight from New York. He urges her to recover her lost hour which now resides in the land of Dissocia in order to restore her balance.

Lisa embarks upon a wild, surrealist trip through Dissocia, a land that is much like a grown up, and darker, version of Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, with its very own battle between its queen, who has gone into hiding, and the evil Black Dog King.

It is a land resplendent with eccentric characters that Lisa encounters on her journey to find her precious lost hour. Two self-deprecating “insecurity” guards, delightfully played by Matt Day and Justin Smith, provide the comic highlight of the show. Others include a sexually predatory scapegoat, played by the very talented Russell Dykstra, a council worker (Michelle Doake) who bares the brunt of all the crimes in Dissocia, a singing polar bear and a “lost” lost property office.

Justine Clarke looks perfect as the Alice-like ingénue. Unlike Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who was a voice of reason in a mad world, constantly arguing and challenging, Lisa is more of a passive pawn in a malevolent, idiosyncratic land.

The program indicates that Neilson did not start to write the first act until rehearsals commenced and it shows. While there is some amusing wordplay, the writing lacked depth and genuine cleverness. The humour never really rose above the obvious, slightly naughty, university revue standard. Neilson doesn’t give the performers enough to work with, and the production is forced to rely too much on the director and performers’ considerable skill.

This was particularly noticeable compared to the Sydney Theatre Company’s current production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, a comic tour de force, rich with beautifully crafted, brilliant writing.

Just as the two acts are polar opposites, the audience response on opening night appeared to be polarised. Looking around the audience during the first act, members of the audience were either enjoying it and totally engaged, or were stony faced. Audiences who do not enjoy the first act may want to persevere and stick around for the very different second act as it redeems the first.

In Act two, Alice Babidge’s grassy set is replaced by a stark hospital room. Alan John’s score cuts to silence. The previously long, rollicking scenes are replaced by a series of short, austere scenes in which the heavily sedated Lisa is administered to by a number of doctors, nurses and her family, scarred from too regularly having to deal with Lisa’s bouts of dissocia.

Director Marion Potts shapes her production with an assured hand. Both she and her excellent cast make a valiant job of working the occasionally dark, absurdist humour in the first act and effectively shift to the poignant, sombre tone of act two.

The best moment of the play, and the one that makes it all worthwhile, is when Lisa compares her reasons for not taking her medication to how, in Greek mythology, sailors were drawn to the Sirens’ song, knowing their ships would be dashed on the rocks. The tragic attraction to the wonderful world of dissocia is too strong to resist, despite its dangers.

Sydney Theatre Company presents
by Anthony Neilson

Director Marion Potts

Venue: Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, Pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: 14 April to 23 May 2009
Tickets: $30 to $75
Bookings: 9250 1777 or

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