The Wonderful World Of Dissocia / National Student Drama Festival
Various venues
March / April, 2007

Reviews of The Wonderful World Of Dissocia seem to corroborate my theory that one can often tell which reviewers have any experience of psychological disequilibrium from the way they write about plays which address it.  Even Equus, in which the teenager's horrifying crack-up is merely a pretext for some more musing on Peter Shaffer's favourite heart/mind conflict, brought out some tut-tutting comments about psychologist R.D. Laing, although these were mainly along the lines that such views of psychiatric upsets were now rather dated.  But with Dissocia, there is active condemnation of Anthony Neilson for allegedly glorifying bipolar disorder.  I don't see it, myself.  To note a difference is not to condone that difference; how else might Neilson show what used to be called manic depression if not by portraying phases of mania and of depression?  Nor, it seems to me, does the second act – in which protagonist Lisa is shown semi-zombified and shabbily treated by friends, relatives and medical staff – amount to a condemnation of all, or even mainstream, treatment of conditions such as hers.  What Neilson shows is first illness unchecked, then acute response – there's no implication regarding Lisa's normal, properly medicated life.

But among reviewers there seems to be an eagerness to collapse matters into a simple binary.  It’s almost as if there is something in us that requires victims of certain events or conditions to be damaged in a particular way or to a particular extent, and that we sometimes rather resent it when they are not.  It can seem as if we were more concerned with finding ways in which we can confirm ourselves as noble, sensitive and liberal by championing a certain “cause” than with actually understanding that issue, let alone ameliorating the way it is dealt with or viewed.  Sorry, this is one of my soapboxes.  But Neilson has already had his remarks about the – or a – possible future of playwriting so wildly misinterpreted that it seems to me he can do without the plays themselves being subjected to similar misunderstanding.


In any case, that concludes the voting of the London jury.  For most of the rest of this page, let me reflect on NSDF to augment Robert Hewison's report and those samples of award-winning student criticism reprinted elsewhere in this issue.

My reports in previous years have indicated a conspicuous discontent with the then-Festival directorate, and its approach of ideological box-ticking at the expense of actual excellence.  Without rhapsodising too fulsomely, let me say that new artistic director Holly Kendrick gives every indication of being a very Good Thing, with capital letters.  This is not least due to her background as a producer, where her predecessors had been directors.  So, for instance, Kendrick astutely assembled a workshop programme even more wide-ranging than usual; never once this year did I hear the normally perennial complaint, "Why were there no sessions on [insert subject of choice]?"  As ever, the Festival has to deal with the problem of attracting a wide range of young people with radically differing degrees of knowledge or experience; more than once during the week I heard of workshop leaders having to fundamentally re-structure their sessions on the hoof, as it were – one remarked that his topic had attracted two people who knew something about it “and 23 girls who thought it sounded sort of cool”.  Obviously, the younger or less experienced shouldn’t be left out, either in general or by being formally excluded from particular sessions.  I wonder whether one way around this might be to label workshops as containing content at various levels, not unlike American college course terminology – Playwriting 101 etc.


The other aspect about which I have reservations is the slackening-off of intensity.  It used to be possible, literally, to spend the entire week of the Festival always occupied, 24 hours a day.  This year, workshop and performance sessions fell into discrete slots in morning, afternoon and evening.  On the one hand, this is helpful, but it does suggest that there’s rather less around.  In fact, what there is less of is selected productions.  (I know that should be “fewer” – sorry.)  For some years NSDF had been structured on the informal convention that 14 or 15 student productions would be selected for performance during the week.  Kendrick’s predecessor as director reduced this to 10 or 11 shows, to make room for invited international presentations.  Now Kendrick has altered the focus of international involvement to workshopping and work-in-progress collaboration, which on the basis of this year worked well; but the number of domestic shows selected has not risen again to fill the gap.  Of course, it’s always going to be a lottery from year to year, and as it happened the average running time of NSDF07’s selected shows was unusually high.  Nevertheless, I think there’s room for increase… not least because otherwise there is less for the Festival community as a whole to meet and discuss.

This is an example of how many different elements in such a festival are interrelated.  One of the main elements of NSDF is the series of discussion sessions where all meet and debate the productions just seen and various issues arising.  Previously, these sessions have been held more or less daily; this year, only three discussions occurred throughout the week, giving the Festival less of a chance to discover and negotiate its own communal identity on a day-to-day basis.  Nevertheless, those discussions which did take place were generally thoughtful and salient, if (as often) sometimes offering shows slightly too easy a ride.  I had suggested to the new discussion moderator, actor Alan Cox, that we could usefully introduce a device from TV panel show QI whereby any excessively predictable answers are greeted with flashing lights, sirens and several points being deducted.  However, this year, no-one ever said, “Why was this show selected?”, “It means whatever you want it to mean”, nor even “I’ve nothing against constructive criticism, but this is too much.”  It seems we’re learning.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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