Normally I try to give every show I see a fair crack of the whip and keep the vitriol to a minimum, but just occasionally I see a play that is so lamentably bad that there's no point in beating about the bush. The Wonderful World of Dissocia by Anthony Neilson had its first night on Friday at the Royal Court, so the theatre was packed with the great and the good from Sir Peter Hall downwards. I normally avoid first nights if I can, as the enthusiastic reaction from the audience of fellow actors and friends of the cast willng the production to succeed can be very misleading. Neilson's play first saw the light of day at the Edinburgh Festival (not the Fringe, the Festival proper) in 2004. I can see why it appealed to the EIF's director Brian McMaster, whose taste in theatre has always leaned towards the pretentious. Now it's been revived by the National Theatre of Scotland and after the Royal Court it will be touring until June.
On March 21 Neilson wrote an article for the Guardian complaining that 'we've been boring audiences for decades now, and they've responded by slowly withdrawing their patronage'. Audiences came to the theatre expecting to be entertained, but 'we sent them back into the night feeling bored, bullied and baffled.' The thrust of his article was that too many plays were worthy attempts to grapple with political or social issues, written to educate rather than to entertain. Playwrights' egos were getting in the way of making theatre accessible, plays were often too long, too poetic, too obscure or too reliant on realism or on technology. I don't know what Pinter, Stoppard, Frayn and Hare (to name just four of those who presumably are to blame for boring audiences rigid) think of this argument, but I have a certain sympathy with it. If a play doesn't work dramatically, no amount of clever political argument, snazzy lighting or smoke effects will help. Audiences who pay for an evening's entertainment have a right to be entertained. If only Neilson's play lived up to his manifesto...
The problem is that Dissocia is so witless and feeble that it's not remotely entertaining. 'When your arse and spine start to sing, check the watch,' he writes. Well, I was checking my watch last night and praying for this ghastly experience to end. It's a play that has no proper characterisation and no proper plot; I agree that not every play has to be well-made in the style of Granville Barker, but if there's no character or plot the playwright had better deliver something extra special instead. The storyline, if there is one, is the mental illness of Lisa, who believes she has lost an hour from her life and travels to the magical country of Dissocia to try to get it back. Act One is a series of weak sketches and feeble pantomime jokes around this theme, and the only moment I liked was the one where Lisa is befriended by a cute and cuddly polar bear. There's a couple of songs and some slapstick involving hot dogs, a car that turns into an aeroplane (yes, Neilson seems to have liked Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), quite a lot of theatrical smoke and mirrors, and the general effect is of an inferior Alice Through the Looking Glass. Act Two is quite different in style and content, with a Beckettian minimalism and a naturalistic style of acting. Lisa is a hospital patient in a psychiatric clinic, and the sequence of scenes shows her taking her pills (over and over again) and being visited by nurses, doctors and family. In the final scene she cuddles a stuffed polar bear -- a neat device which links the two halves of the play. Lisa is played with gutsy determination by Christine Entwistle but the rest of the cast have nothing to contribute because Neilson hasn't given them anything in the way of raw material.
Perhaps my hostility to this play was enhanced by Neilson's unfortunate article in the Guardian, which suggested he had stumbled on some kind of magic theatrical X-factor which none of his predecessors even realised was needed. But I think I would have been bored rigid anyway by the feeble jokes and the failure of the play to say anything meaningful about its ostensible subject, mental illness. I really wasn't entertained at all, I didn't find the play accessible, dramatic, amusing or gripping, just self-indulgent and pretentious. I couldn't identify with Lisa because I knew no more about her at the end of the play than at the beginning. A play can be a conundrum, but it works best when the writer doesn't try to explain what he or she is doing, or indulge in excessive explanation. You won't catch Pinter or Caryl Churchill spelling out what their plays mean the way Neilson does in the foreword he has written for the current production. My mood wasn't helped by the fact that I saw A Midsummer Night's Dream the day before Dissocia, and a local amateur production of Me And My Girl the day after. Comparisons with Shakespeare may be unfair, but Noel Gay's 1930s musical, with all its cliches, casts more of a magical spell on me than Neilson's banal play. The real irony is that for all his talk of accessibility and pleasing audiences, Neilson's work exemplifies the kind of theatre that only flourishes in a subsidised environment. There may be an audience out there for this kind of nonsense, but I think it's likely to consist of people who aren't very good at spotting when the emperor has no clothes.