A clinical trial looking at the effects of a new anti-depressant. Not quite the setting you’d imagine love to explode from, but in Lucy Prebble’s new play, The Effect, under the direction of Rupert Goold for Headlong Theatre at the National Theatre, the effects of chemicals flying through the body take centre stage. I had my worries when Headlong Theatre’s Medea seemed to get crushed beneath the towering design and direction, but in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe the balance is struck with perfection. Miriam Buether’s design encases the audience within the four walls of the trial laboratory; audience either sit within or look down on the action like scientists observing their experiments. Rupert Goold’s direction counteracts Buether’s design, continually pushing and bursting from within the space, drug and passion fuelled action explodes before being sedated into stillness.
Prebble’s The Effect takes some time to reveal the mechanics at work, which does leave the first act lacking in conflict but does set the second act to hold a much greater narrative strength. Prebble’s writing is one that steadily reveals layers of meaning and argument, the characters becoming much more dynamic and fuller as their motives are explored. The fiery passion of fellow clinical trial volunteers Connie (Billie Piper) and Tristan (Jonjo O’Neili) is potentially brought about through side-affects of the anti-depressant they are trialling which brings a heightened state of being into those who would be considered ‘normal’ ie, not depressed. Whilst Tristan is adamant it’s true love at work, Connie, a psychology student, rationalises that it’s the increased levels of dopamine that is offsetting their chemical balance and forcing love upon them.
Under the watchful eye of Dr Lorna James (Anastasia Hilie) questions over the ethics of anti-depressants and if they are merely a placebo that masks the lack of a cure for depression is questioned, pointing the blame at drug companies who profit from this known lie. The Effect looks not only at the ethics of prescription drugs for mental illnesses, but the fragile psyche of the mind and the neurological implications of lustful chemical-induced love. Forced to commit to four weeks in the residency of the laboratory the sexual and metal tension of the characters seems to boil to intensity, and when it snaps it not only breaks the relationships but also the psychological state of the characters. Prebble’s play is cutting and poignant, challenging the unstable balances of science and the personal implications of chemicals upon the mind, making The Effect a thrilling move from Prebble’s previous political driven play Enron.
Piper as Connie is warm and tender whilst still holding her wits about her. The Effect marks her third stage performance and is remarkably endearing, especially towards the latter parts of the play when she shows that love isn’t always a chemical fuelled moment, but a lasting one. As the wild fire Tristan, O’Neili is boyish and playful, somewhat like a puppy desperate to be played with. Yet it is within Hilie’s transformation as Dr Lorna James that really leaves a mark upon the piece. At first it appears her role is merely to facilitate the trial but Prebble uses the doctor to show the other side of depression and the drugs that are pumped into thousands of bodies each year. Suffering from severe bouts of depression herself, the doctor refuses to be medicated by the drugs that she sees as only offering a placebo effect. As Prebble’s play progresses it’s evident that Lorna’s refusal of treatment and her workings on the trail are having a damaging affect upon her. By the end, Hilie’s Lorna is a fragile and hollow shell of her former self, as she curls up in bed or moves about the space you can feel the crushing sensation of a mind going astray.
Goold’s direction works wonders to Prebble’s dialogue, bringing the visual neurology of the body into the performance space through projections, music or just fast-paced action. Much like Curious Incidient of the Dog in the Night Time which proceeded The Effect, the Cottesloe Theatre feels transformed and electric as it delves into the synapses of the brain. Prebble certainly has a knack at producing some remarkable images from her writing, with lines such as ‘I’ve built a part of my brain around you’, or ‘I’m not sane, I’m just not insane yet’.
By the end The Effect feels as if the audience itself has been pumped with drugs and experimented with. We witness the full circle of health and relationships as they spin and bob on the open shores of the mind. Prebble poses questions of mentality and whose duty is it to cure illnesses of the brain, whilst showing a blossoming relationship that seems to grow stronger the madder the mind becomes. It’s a poignant, timely and above all accessible play. It’s just a shame that it’s already sold out and with the Cottesloe redevelopment looming it’s unlikely to get an extension, at least not at the National Theatre.