Arts Review Singapore Theatre Wild Rice

★★★☆☆ Review: The Wonderful World of Dissocia by young & w!ld

Wonderland gone wrong leaves a confusing message about mental health.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Edith Podesta)7
Script (Anthony Neilson)5
Performance (Eleanor Ee, Michelle Hariff, Hoe Wei Qi, Elisa Mustika, Nicole Shaan, Monil SJ, Gosteloa Spancer, Su Paing Tun, Jovi Tan, Valerie Tan, Tiara Yap, Christian Yeo)7
Set Design (Akbar Syadiq)7
Lighting Design (Amirul Azmi)7
Costume/Hair/Makeup Design (Max Tan/Ashley Lim/Bobbie Ng)7
Music Composition (Inch Chua)7
Choreography (Ryan Ang)6
Sound Design (Bani Haykal) 7
Total60/90 (67%)
Final Score:★★★☆☆

Living in the complex, terrifying and altogether unpleasant real world, it becomes all too easy to want to slip away from it, and imagine escaping to some other parallel universe as a means of coping. But how long can you stay away before you’re forced to confront reality again?

For those suffering from dissociative disorder, this becomes an almost regular occurrence, requiring medication and monitoring to keep the condition under control. In a rather imaginative interpretation of the condition, Anthony Neilson’s 2004 play The Wonderful World of Dissocia takes a more whimsical approach to the disorder. Directed by Edith Podesta and performed by the eighth graduating cohort of W!ld Rice’s young & w!ld programme, the play follows Lisa, a girl who has ‘lost’ an hour of her day, and finds herself thrust into the surreal world of Dissocia to retrieve it.

Primarily taking inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, amidst nods to other children’s fantasy novels, ‘strange and funny’ doesn’t even begin to cut it for the world of Dissocia. ‘Insecurity guards’ patrol the border for example, while a ‘lost lost property’ office that doubles as a hot dog stand, alongside a whole host of odd guests. As with Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, Lisa’s route does not seem to follow any specific trajectory, with her only goal being to find her lost hour. Nothing in Dissocia is cohesive, from the varying accents characters adopt, to the absurd logic they attempt to follow, requiring a large amount of suspension of disbelief, and a willingness to go along for the ride.

But unlike Wonderland and other safer children’s fare, to allow yourself to get lulled in by a false sense of security via the initially silly and over the top antics, is to set yourself up for a shock when it takes a sudden nose dive for the violent and dark. Literal scapegoats perform attempted rape, there are entire government agencies set up to send employees to suffer the crime on behalf of the supposed victim, and an ongoing war, where bombs leave people’s skin on fire and cause mass destruction.

And it is this sudden jump into the outright horrifying is what makes Dissocia such a contradictory play. We are never entirely sure if we are to feel amused or afraid of Dissocia, if one should be more inclined to stay or leave. Lisa herself is shown to be in a constant state of uncertainty about how to feel, unsure how much of this world to trust or what her end goal is. She is only ever slightly intrigued at times, but for the most part, frustrated rather than fascinated by the world she finds herself in.

Within the first act, the young cast are given an opportunity to go ham on their character work, to varying degrees of success, with some members even overwhelmed by the (perhaps deliberately frustrating) material. Amidst the multiple unstable accents and some uncertainty in performance, there are some standout actors who showcase a natural confidence and clarity in their voice, such as Tiara Yap, whose pre-existing stage experience affords her a comfort in her role as a long-suffering civil servant who has to bear crimes originally meant to be inflicted on others, before completely shifting personality into a more maniacal bomber. Both Monil SJ and Nicole Shaan, as the bumbling insecurity guards, make for a fun duo we can’t help but be appalled by for their incompetence.

Meanwhile, Valerie Tan doesn’t even physically appear onstage, but instead is represented by a polar bear puppet, singing a disturbing original song (by Inch Chua) about being left behind in death, her voice powerful and haunting. As for the men, Christian Yeo allows himself to lean into the absurd roles he’s given, going into over the top exaggeration as the Oathtaker, with an ensemble of hooded followers behind him. Others, especially in the lost office-turned hotdog stand scene, simply revel in the ridiculousness, finding the rhythm of the absurdity to feel like a part of this world. Together, the ensemble’s energy, alongside their kooky costumes and strange multi-hued lighting, allows the world of Dissocia to come to life by matching the same energy of a twisted Wonderland.

Overall however, it is this deliberate clash of ideas and lack of commitment to the fun or allure in Dissocia that turns chaos into confusion, and most of these roles are too fast or too fleeting to really showcase what these young actors are capable of. This also directly affects the second act, which showcases a completely different mood from the first act. Gone is the mushroom-filled, fantasy-world of Dissocia, and instead replaced with a hyperrealistic hospital room set, with Lisa exhausted and lying in bed, while nurses and doctors flit in and out to remind her to take her pills, over and over again. Michelle Hariff does a good job of showcasing the sudden mood swings, from mania to depression, and we feel fear as she looks at the exit with longing and powerlessness. The lighting is harsh, while Bani Haykal’s sound effects punctuating the end of each scene are jittery, unnerving and create a sense of unease, making this a far more successful half.

Of course, this is only possible when you contrast it to the colourful madness of Dissocia, but harkening back to how much fear and danger was about, one cannot help but wonder if that truly is a better alternative to reality itself. As such, what makes The Wonderful World of Dissocia so frustrating is its lack of cohesion between both halves, where Dissocia never reaches the heights of euphoria to convince us that it works as an escape from the droll real world. Lisa never does find her lost hour, and seems to have lost any zeal for life altogether, caught between worlds and belonging to neither.

The Wonderful World of Dissocia‘s attempt at portraying dissociative identity disorder ultimately, isn’t a particularly successful or sympathetic one, and leaves us wondering how exactly we’re supposed to feel about those suffering from it. For these young actors, it at least makes for a fun, though incoherent, play that lets them perform roles they likely rarely would in a majority of professional productions that helps create a wild and oftentimes disturbing fantasia. These are actors who clearly have the energy and drive to doing well in theatre, but it was either not felt or given the opportunity to flourish with a production like this, making for a passable, if problematic graduation showcase.

Photo Credit: Ruey Loon

The Wonderful World of Dissocia played from 11th to 14th May 2023 at Wild Rice @ Funan. More information available here

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