A profane, maddening, Alice-in-Wonderland trip leads to something more profound in Anthony Nielsen’s strangely compelling 2004 study of mental instability. I have seldom seen a play composed of two such separate acts: and here a brief and moving second half makes clear the ragtag, playful first. Emma Baggott’s revival is underpinned from start to finish by Leah Harvey’s excellent central performance, focused and magnetic between outer and inner chaos.
Harvey, who uses they/their pronouns, plays Lisa, an ostensibly modern city girl: our only anchor in time or place is that she listens to an iPod. Lisa is sent by a watchman to the abstract world of Disosia to find out how much of her life she lost on her way back from New York. The watchman drinks urine, by the way – other people’s, not his own – and dissocia is reached by an imaginary lift that goes sideways as well as up and down.
Once in this absurd, cartoonish realm, cool and logical Lisa has a long conversation with two uniformed men who are eager to choose. They are security guards! Nielsen overplays this gag, and the next about a cloven-hoofed ruminant who wants to be blamed for everything (a scapegoat, geddit?) and a hot dog stand that was a lost property office until it was lost.
When a scapegoat tries to violate Lisa—and a female council officer takes his place to get the victim count, if not the crime count, down—it’s the first sign of something darker than a late-period python. That Dysocia has lost its queen and is under attack from Black Dog’s forces suggests that Lisa’s lost time is a metaphor for depression.
Nielsen originally workshopped the play with drama students, which makes it feel deliciously free, bordering on random. Jokes are hilarious, often sharp, as well as clever and sly. There are two songs, again Pythonesque: a wry meditation on the nature of time from Lisa, and a gentle tune about the death of a teddy bear in a costume.
Baggot conducts the first half like the best of panto on a primary-colored cutout set by Grace Smart, with deadly-joy performances from an excellent cast. It’s very funny, if sometimes forced and rambling. Smiling, I wondered how on earth Bagot had revived something so fleeting.
The second half boldly brought me back down to earth: in pin-sharp, snapshot scenes, it deftly suggests that Lisa, under the medical and emotional burden she needs, needs to escape to dyssocia. Nielsen will joke about anything, but he doesn’t trivialize or romanticize mental illness.
Harvey meets each twist of the script with steady resolve, while the supporting ensemble delivers a vivid gallery of eccentricities. I can understand why some might give up on this play halfway through. But trust me: the experience changes if you stay.
Theater Royal Stratford Eastto 15 Oct; stratfordeast.com