All entries for Thursday 10 May 2007
May 10, 2007
The National Theatre of Scotland was only founded in 2006. Odd, you might think, as you’d have thought the title would have been snapped up by another Scottish theatre company years ago. ‘National Theatre’, of course, implies that it is the nation’s premier producting company, and going on last night’s performance I really wish another company had taken the title, for ‘The Wonderful World of Dissocia’ is a very poor ambassador for Scottish theatre.
Billing itself as ‘Alice In Wonderland’ with added sex and violence, the play followed the story of a young woman, Lisa, who had (through an unlucky combination of crossing time zones just as British Summer Time ended) lost an hour, forcing her life into imbalance. A little Swiss watchmaker sent her on a quest to the magical world of Dissocia, a Wonderland-type place filled with exotic characters, at war with the evil Dog King. Nothing wrong with the premise, and it led to some very funny ideas, including two Insecurity Guards who welcomed her to Dissocia while swearing loudly at their own stupidity, a crime prevention scheme where one badly-injured woman drove around taking the place of prospective crime victims (“Crime has doubled, but the number of victims is down to one”), and a Lost Property office with customers who had lost their sense of humour, the argument and their inhibitions.
Where it all fell down was in the execution. The jokes were often simply not funny, the action was stilted and the cast didn’t seem to have much concept of what they were actually doing. Moments that started funny were ruined by dragging on too long (the crime prevention woman was a wonderful idea, but the scene dragged on for ages, including an entire offstage rape heard by the audience- clearly designed to shock, but in fact just boring). In addition, the lead actress, Christine Entwisle, was given several songs despite not being able to sing, and the sound quality from the stage was so bad that the noisy schoolchildren drowned out much of the quieter dialogue. It was clear that a lot of money had gone into the design and the effects, but precious little effort seemed to have been taken to ensure the performances matched their surroundings.
Despite the amateurish quality, there was much to enjoy in the first half. A puppet polar bear who sang to Lisa was the definite highlight, and a bizarre bombing raid, dropping novelty bombs that left scorch marks in the shape of fluffy cats, was also amusing. The act ended with Lisa being revealed as queen of Dissocia, and the citizens rising to take on the evil Dog King, who then appeared behind her. Throughout, echoes of dialogue and noises from above suggested that Lisa was having some sort of delusion or dream, and the appearance of the Dog King confirmed that there was something strange going on…..
The second half was an entirely different play. Lisa was revealed to be in a mental hospital, separated from the audience by a clear screen. In a long series of short moments, divided by blackouts, we traced Lisa’s recovery from near-catatonia to unruliness to a depressed but coherent patient on the verge of leaving. Loose links were made with the first half of the play- her boyfriend was the Dog King; a voicemail she had left in the first half about her surroundings in Dissocia was picked up by her boyfriend and dismissed as nonsense; and, in a relatively touching final scene, she opened a bag of her belongings to pull out a toy polar bear, the bear who had sung to her in Dissocia, which she embraced as the play ended.
This second half was far better realised, and far better performed (Chrstine Entwisle in particular was very good, a completely different actress to the first half). However, it became very boring. The links to the first half were loose and poorly-structured, and the monotonous quality of the scenes, while an effective contrast to the crazy colours of Dissocia, became too dull very quickly. It also portrayed a very stereotypical idea of a mental institution and mental patient and, as some said afterwards, it didn’t lend anything to the first half beyond its initial contrast.
Quite simply, it wasn’t a very good play, and I’m stunned by the seemingly glowing reviews it received when first presented at the Edinburgh Festival. There were some interesting ideas, and I’d be lying if I claimed that I didn’t laugh several times in the first half, but it neither committed to its insanity nor bore out its deeper context. In some ways, it would have been better if it had gone for all style with no substance, as at least then it could have been enjoyed on a surface level. The sense that they were trying to create something deeper and more meaningful, though, left it floundering. It’s a shame, because the company are clearly one prepared to take artistic risks and push boundaries. However, the boundaries they were trying to push had been crossed long ago, and there’s no point trying to take risks if your cast and script aren’t up to it.
Finally, a thought. The play was written and directed by the same chap, Anthony Neilson. It strikes me, having watched that, that you should never direct your own play. Plays benefit from directors coming in, looking critically at the work and pulling their own ideas from it. A writer directing their own play, however, surely won’t have the same objective sense of what’s working and what’s not. Some prudent editing would have helped both parts of the play immensely, and I would be very interested to see what a different director could do with the same script.