What is love?: STC's The Effect

What is love? People have struggled for centuries – no, millennia – trying to articulate an answer to this fundamental question without too much clarity one way or another. When you’re in love, it’s the most beautiful feeling of sharing yourself with another person; when you’re not in love it’s cruel and bitter and ugly. It’s something so deep it’s unreachable and unavoidable; something so intricate, yet so easily manipulated and crippled; the most blissful, merciless torture ever experienced by anyone on this earth; that’s what love is. And yet, apart from all of these emotional descriptions, love is a chemical process in our bodies and brains, a chemical which stimulates and colours our senses, moods, actions, bodily processes and decisions. In Lucy Prebble’s latest play The Effect, produced here by Sydney Theatre Company with Queensland Theatre Company, the clinical and physical reactions to love are examined amidst a drug trial for a new antidepressant, as real emotions and biophysical responses collide with chemically-induced stimulants.
Prebble’s play unfolds across a span of about six weeks, from the first day of the trial to sometime in the near future following its apparent conclusion. We first meet a two young people in their late twenties – Connie is a psychology student, while Tristan is a charismatic young man who has participated in a number of drug trials previously. Observing them are Dr Lorna James, a clinical psychiatrist, and Toby, her superior, but they too have a history; soon, the four of them are embroiled in a clash of ethics and perceptions, and it’s clear that nothing in life, as in love, is ever truly objective.

First staged in Britain by Headlong and the National Theatre in 2012, The Effect is, in Andrew Upton’s words, in the “fine tradition of British drama [best] exemplified by the work of David Hare – drama that takes on a pressing issue whilst exploring fully rounded, deeply flawed, human beings.” Under Sarah Goodes’ direction, Prebble’s play is assured, clear, engaging, clever and playful, while maintaining a seriousness about the ethical and clinical effects of drug trials, depression and mental health.
Prebble’s script is clever and intelligent; perhaps described as ‘a romantic-comedy for the pharmaceutical age,’ The Effect is in the vein of playwrights such as Hare, Tom Stoppard and Timberlake Wertenbaker, where politics and science form a backdrop for the very human drama happening in the foreground, and where the audience is allowed to make up their own minds about characters’ motivations, the ethical questions raised by the work, and the effect it can have on our own lives. Like many good plays, and indeed like science, Prebble poses more questions than she give answers to, and the play works on a subjective level as opposed to an objective and prescriptive one when it comes to its heart and humour; some might, appropriately, find it cold and clinical, while others – myself included – find it illuminating, challenging, manipulative and seductive, sometimes against our better judgement, although that is probably the play’s point. While Goodes’ production changes most of the region-specific references to examples appropriate to Australia and, more explicitly, Sydney, some small references slip through, highlighting the fact you can never truly disguise an author’s country (or dialect) of origin, no matter how well specific references or examples are updated; phrasing too seems slightly off for an Australian context, though it doesn’t affect the production’s overall outcome, plot or characters at all. My only other quibble with Prebble’s script is in the two or three scenes in which Dr James consults with Connie and Tristan simultaneously. Effectively a split-scene, or where two conversations have been merged in theatrical space, the doubling and/or mirroring of circumstances, feelings and developments seems clunky and made overly obvious; perhaps instead of having both characters answer in a similar way, their lines and reactions cut into, finished and began the other’s, then the dual nature of the scene could have been amplified and made clearer.
Renée Mulder’s set – a white illuminated rectangle surrounded by black reflective walls – is malleable and non-specific enough to be everything from waiting rooms and laboratories, to lecture halls, hospitals, dormitories and an abandoned asylum. While seemingly sterile and cold, Mulder’s set is the perfect mirror to Prebble’s script, and with Ben Hughes’ lighting, amplifies the humanity and playfulness in the middle of the play, as well as heightening the ethical conundrum which forms the bulk of Act Two. Guy Webster’s sound design, almost invisible for much of the produciton, became another subtle evocation of place and location, underscoring and heightening moments of tension and covering necessary scene-changes. David Bergman and Mulder’s video designs were subtle, clear, and effective, and didn’t distract from the set or the action on stage.
Anna McGahan’s Connie is warm and intelligent. A psychology student, Connie is aware of the potential dangers and effects of the drug she is trialling, aware that her emotions are going to be manipulated, yet McGahan grounds them in a very real way, making us care about Connie and her burgeoning relationship with Tristan. Mark Leonard Winter’s Tristran is cock-sure and charismatic; an old-hand at drug trials, his early scenes are filled with a bluster and swagger which soon gives way to a desperation and a very real need for relief from his symptoms. His scenes with McGahan are playful, a clash of ideas as much as ideals and beliefs, though they do manage to form a kind of unified front against those supervising the trial. As the supervising psychiatrist, Angie Milliken is perhaps a little distant. While her voice is perhaps a little strained or thin, she imbues her Dr James with a humanity and a conscience, a desire to help others and make sure they aren’t in any danger, a decision which has dangerous consequences in the long run. As her supervisor, Eugene Gilfedder is like a dog with a bone, reluctant to give up his point of view on the drug being trialled, on the trial process itself, just as much as on the perceived and desired outcome(s). There is humour in Prebble’s play and the cast bring it out with grace and deftness, just as they bring out the very human despair and desire which runs through the play’s fabric. McGahan and Winter’s young lovers are credible and believable, as is Milliken and Gilfedder’s complex relationship. The final scenes are touching as much as they are faintly despairing, but they reaffirm the idea that even though ‘love’ may be a chemical process, right action and compassion are not.
While the play’s set-up, development and resolution has a kind of mathematical symmetry to it which could seem glib in another’s hands, Prebble and Goodes instead create a play which is perplexing and engaging in equal amounts. It questions our dependence on medication to stay ‘happy’ or buoyant, our fear of getting sick or feeling blue and needing to combat it, and questions our interactions and relationships with people we are close to or are acquainted with. While the ending may seem forced and perhaps implausible to some, The Effect is an intelligent, thought-provoking and rewarding experience, and we don’t quite have enough of them in the theatre at the moment.

Theatre playlist: 38. Warm In The Winter, Glass Candy

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