Lisa (played by Leah Harvey) has recently been experiencing sluggishness, irritability and relationship troubles – all these symptoms are the result of Lisa having lost an hour when travelling from New York to London during the changing of the clocks.
Victor, an eccentric watch specialist, who diagnoses this problem, gives her a nebulous, yet deceptively simple solution: dial a number which will take her to a country called Dissocia, whose citizens will assist her in relocating her missing hour.
And yet, this isn’t a simple quest at all. Rather, Anthony Neilson takes us on a spiralling, absurdist journey through the fantasy-land of Dissocia where Lewis Carroll meets the Safdie brothers. Neilson’s cult modern classic at first feels like a pantomime on drugs, but we soon learn that Lisa has a dissociative disorder, and what we’ve witnessed in the first half is her in an acute crisis.
One can’t deny Emma Baggott has understood not just how to stage this play, but how to connect the two parts of the play for the audience and for the now, in a world where many of us have lost years of our life to a pandemic, and where many of us are still struggling to open up about our mental health.
If Victor is this play’s equivalent to Alice In Wonderland’s White Rabbit, Lisa is not only Alice but the Queen of Hearts – she’s both victims to the citizens of Dissocia who send her on a wild goose chase but also ultimately the one in charge of this fantastical mind-prison in which she has found herself. This is a view many people without dissociative disorder, or any history of mental illness might take when learning that Lisa has not been taking her meds, which has led to this dissociative period.
Leah Harvey plays Lisa with such earnestness and director Emma Baggott has created a production with such tenderness that audiences of this Theatre Royal Stratford East production would be hard-pushed to take such a stern moral position. There is a danger with Lisa’s character, up against the ensemble of off-beat nonsensical characters, to be overshadowed but Harvey commands the stage, both when they’re standing on their own in the middle of the dais dancing to music or when they’re cowering in confusion as the citizens of Dissocia enact chaos on the stage.
Tomi Ogbaro and Michael Grady-Hall, who play the Insecurity Guards, commit to their bit relentlessly, always delivering the jokes flawlessly. Archie Backhouse delivers his performance as the Scapegoat with the utmost energy while remaining balanced in staggeringly unstable hoof heels. Phoebe Naughton hits every comedic beat as the “Australian” Britney, the frazzled hot-dog server and Lost Property employee. It feels as if this group of actors were the original LAMDA students who first workshopped this play with Neilson when it was first devised in 2002.
It’s a safe bet to say that Angela Gasperetto’s work in bringing the physical comedy to life will keep the audience in stitches throughout the run. And the intimacy Gasparetto and Baggott create in the final scene also stay with audiences- with Leah’s delivery of a particular analogy and the weight of what is unspoken between them and the worn-down yet empathetic Michael Grady-Hall is a haunting condensation of what so many people who either suffer from mental illness or cares for someone who does, feel in every relationship.
Tomi Ogbaro and Michael Grady-Hall, who play the Insecurity Guards, commit to their bit relentlessly, always delivering the jokes flawlessly
Lucía Sánchez Roldán’s lighting design and Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s sound design is slick – and effectively simple when it needs to keep the conversation of mental health at the forefront. In particular, Grace Smart’s disconcerting set design keeps the audience on the edge – the halo that hangs over all the characters throughout the play remains slightly off-kilter, and the backdrops to represent Dissocia are bewitchingly and grotesquely detailed. The design team’s vision of the surrealness of Dissocia bursts with elements of pantomime, even though at times it feels cramped on stage.
Yes, there are issues with the writing and how it binarises the tragicomedy, belabouring the allegory, and how, although the scene with depictions of rape has been protracted, there are some gags that don’t always land. However, one can’t deny Emma Baggott has understood not just how to stage this play, but how to connect the two parts of the play for the audience and for the now, in a world where many of us have lost years of our lives to a pandemic, and where many of us are still struggling to open up about our mental health.