Falling in love feels like one of the most profound, authentic experiences we ever have. Yet what if it’s not ‘real’? What if it’s just an artefact, a mis-labelling of a physiological state? What is ‘real’ anyway? Lucy Prebble’s fiercely intelligent, provocative play raises all these questions, and probes further into our very understanding of the self. And it does all this while managing to be hugely entertaining.
Set in the context of a four-week clinical trial for an anti-depressant drug, The Effect explores the relationships between two couples: two young participants in the trial (Connie and Tristan) and the two overseeing psychiatrists, Toby and Lorna. As the weeks progress, and the drug dosages increase, Connie and Tristan develop increasingly intense feelings for each other. Their physiological data begin to show significant brain changes,and the psychiatrists debate whether these are a result of the couple’s attraction or the attraction is itself a result of the drug. Toby is adamant that emotional experiences (whether love or depression) derive from physiological causes and can be chemically induced and/or corrected. Lorna (herself a sufferer of depression) disputes this and mocks Toby’s quest for “a viagra for the heart.” Meanwhile, Connie – a psychology student – is aware of the uncertain causality of her feelings and correspondingly wary, whereas Tristan is entirely unconcerned. As Connie asks herself “is this real …?”, Tristan places his trust entirely in the feelings themselves, claiming that causality is irrelevant and, in any case, “I can tell the difference between who I am and a side effect.”
This first Act sets up the issues very clearly – almost too clearly. While the writing is sharp and funny, the characters feel a bit like plot functionaries – representatives of viewpoints or theories rather than real people – and the oppositions are so stark that there is a sense of contrivance and even pedagogy. It is intellectually fascinating but without emotional bite. Yet…
After the interval, we begin to see the actual, human face of these philosophical issues, and it is pretty devastating. The characters become true flesh and blood and their struggles feel painfully real. The drug dosage is ramped up, the emotional temperature rises and the young couple grapple with the growing intensity of their attraction. Prebble toys with us as an audience – involving us in the characters’ own uncertainties by drip-feeding information about the status of the couple in the experiment; is one of them a ‘control’ subject, on a placebo? We begin to share the couples’ own confusion about the veracity of the feelings they are experiencing. Meanwhile, Lorna slides into a depressive episode, having previously expressed her resistance to the idea that she can or should be medicated out of it. Depression, she asserts, is not primarily a chemical imbalance, it is a response to the world. Furthermore, “What if it’s a useful pain, throbbing, saying ‘change your life’…?”
It feels, in retrospect, that what struck me as two-dimensional or shallow in the first Act was actually the way we all manage our worlds and the complexity of our feelings – by presenting ourselves as a kind of ‘persona’. In the second Act, Prebble takes us behind the personas, into the tardis of real ‘selves’ and the impact is profound. Further, the transition from the cool intellectualism of the first Act to the emotional turbulence of the second is managed brilliantly by Jake Murray’s direction and an excellent cast. Daniel Bradford is utterly convincing as Tristan and his disintegration from a goofy, smug hedonist into a tortured, bewildered soul is heartbreaking. Similarly, Karen Winchester gives an agonising performance as the humanistic psychiatrist struggling with her own demons.
The Effect is a very clever play. It is positively bursting with ideas and I feel like I am still processing many of them. But is also more than this. Prebble herself refers to it as “the most truthful play I’ve ever written” and it’s not hard to see why. She has connected with fundamental issues of who we are and how we know who we are. She has addressed them not just analytically, but with real emotional honesty and exposure. What a shame it’s only on a short run at Oldham Coliseum – it deserves much longer.
Photos: Sophie Giddens