In Anthony Neilson's latest piece, which closes this year's theatre bill at the Edinburgh International Festival, protagonist Lisa (Christine Entwisle), evidently in some kind of mental fugue, travels to the peculiar land of Dissocia ("We'll be such damn good hosts to ya," sing a welcoming committee) to recover a missing hour which has somehow unbalanced her life. Dissocia is at perennial war with the Black Dog (named after Churchill's term for his depression), whom Lisa confronts in the final tableau before the interval.
This first act is frothy and, on the face of it, fundamentally un-Neilsonian. True, there are occasional nastinesses, such as the minor official who has been assigned to be the sole victim of all crime and so takes Lisa's place to be beaten, anally raped and urinated on (or "BAU'd", as she matter-of-factly calls it). But for the most part we see a cracked psyche that's distinctly at play, in a land peopled by insecurity guards, a half-human, half-caprine scapegoat-turned-Judas-goat, and pilots who drop "novelty bombs" which flatten vast areas but leave a scorch mark shaped like a rhino. The obvious comparison is with Alice In Wonderland, and a number of scenes have a Carrollian logic to them, but there are also echoes of Willy Wonka, Star Wars, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and even perhaps the Marx Brothers' land of Freedonia – all alluring, enticing fantasies which have struck a common chord in millions.
The trademark Neilson discomfiture comes after the interval, when we snap back to an exterior view of the aftermath of Lisa's episode. This 40-minute act takes place entirely in a fluorescent-lit white side-ward of a mental hospital, separated from the audience by plate glass ("through the looking glass"?). It transpires that this is not the first time she has flipped out after neglecting to take her medication. We see her struggling with over-sedation, an inflexible and impersonal treatment process, a sister more concerned with her own embarrassment than Lisa's frailty. It ends on a note of optimism, with Lisa's explanation to her long-suffering boyfriend that missing the medication is like listening to the song of the Sirens: so beautiful that she has to follow it even though she knows it will bring ruin. He understands, he says: he feels the same way about her.
Neilson often seems concerned with extremities of behaviour, but he avers that his real interest is with the liminalities where the ordinary and reasonable shade into the bizarre or repulsive. The diptych of Dissocia puts matters into context: there, but for the grace of God or a pill or two, go many of us.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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