The Dissociation of Shirley Mason is a colourful and climactic experience, highlighting the complexities of mental health and adding important distinctions to a topical and essential conversation.
The action follows the life of Shirley Mason (Karla Kaucky), the woman behind the seminal book Sybil: The True Story of a Woman Possessed by 16 Separate Personalities. Published in 1973, the book was a massive success, greatly affecting the way people saw mental health. The play follows Shirley’s life pre and post publication, using effective multi-roling and soundscapes to discuss themes of manipulation, sexuality and identity.
Entering the space, the audience are greeted by the cast. With thick American accents and extremely polite manners they foreshadow the over-zealous Seventh Day Adventists that will dominate the first chapters of the action. The space is commanded by a surrealist painting that hangs in the centre of the stage. As the only static piece of set, its permanence allows the link between surrealism and psychiatry to become clearer. Art is further used to blend the barriers between reality and the imagined, and during transitions actors recreate famous paintings, like Matisse’s Dance.
The play uses ensemble to effectively tell the story, the cast moving as one organism to create a sense of place and time. They almost construct a spectre-like presence. Each of the seven members of the cast reframe the props for each scene. The easy transitions help to add to the pervading feeling of non-reality, and allows for easy shifts between timelines. The use of multi-roling also adds to the feeling of non-permanence. Each actor easily sliding between characters echoes Shirley’s own disassociation.
All three female protagonists are enthralling. Each use very defining characterisation to establish clear identity. Dr Cornelia Wilbur, played by Sophie Walter, deserves special mention. Her transition from evaluative to manipulative is gradual but marked, Walter convincingly creates a complex and rich character.
The writing also stands out. Isabella Culver has managed to teach complex Freudian theories, religious doctrine and scientific lexicon in a digestible format, making the context dynamic while also palatable.
The costumes are excellent. The actors manipulate the material to show flashes of yellow, the colour of insanity, when Shirley is having an episode. This combined with movement, flashing lights and eclectic music make Shirley’s oppression visceral, justifying the trigger warning on the stage door.
Created for Bristol Old Vic’s emerging talent season, The Dissociation of Shirley Mason is an education in the portrayal of mental health, using a personal story to tackle a large issue. The play asks, what forms identity? And what happens when that identity is questioned?
The Dissociation of Shirley Mason is playing until 16 March. For more information and tickets, visit the Bristol Old Vic website.