Who are we? And what really shapes our identities? Based upon a real life case study of a woman who was said to possess sixteen personalities, Isabella Culver’s powerful The Dissociation of Shirley Mason deals with these questions among many in a play that spans a life and a fair amount of the Twentieth Century.
We take our seats in a suspiciously jovial Weston Studio at Bristol Old Vic, as several cast members greet us in American drawl – they are Seventh Day Adventists, who chat to us about everyday experiences. Eventually turning their attention to each other on stage, they mingle and preach as we meet the young Shirley Mason, a shy girl in a vibrant yellow dress. Played by Karla Kaucky, there’s something of the teenage Judy Garland about her in the early part of the show, an innocent filled with wonder and a little scared, unsure. Her strict religious upbringing hints at abuse, her meekness tempered by questionable authority. As she moves into adulthood, we join Shirley as a student and then as an art teacher in New York and the older she becomes the more we warm to her. Even in her early years we are aware of other personalities alongside Shirley, alluded to by flashes of yellow, the same yellow that cloaks her, splashed on the insides of the clothes of the cast surrounding her. That yellow should symbolise both happiness and madness is no coincidence; Culver’s writing blurs all boundaries as timelines slip and perceptions are altered. And it’s only right that the cast should slide into different characters and decades, rearranging props throughout (all this without causing the least confusion).
Art and psychiatry collide as Shirley becomes unsure of her identity and she feels her personality fragment, attracting the attention of psychiatrist Cornelia B Wilbur, a woman fighting for recognition in a male-dominated world. Sophie Walter, striking in a red suit (passionate, determined, malignant?), shifts with impressive subtlety from champion to manipulator as Shirley’s Dissociative Identity Disorder ebbs and flows. Has she planted the multiple personalities inside Shirley’s mind or does she help to disentangle and then craft them into one, full person? What is reality and what is suggestion? The mind is complex and we’re never really sure whether the controversy surrounding Cornelia’s findings (in the form of a book) is wholly deserved. In fact, this rather unsettling but brilliantly written and executed play leaves us with a nagging disquiet. As it probably should.