Even in the digital era, it’s all about chemistry.
Whether you’ve met through a dating site, a hook-up app or in the old school eyes-across-the-crowded-room scenario, pretty much everything you feel is dependent on the chemicals pumped around your brain, including Dopamine (described as the “pleasure chemical”, producing feelings of bliss), Seratonin (which helps govern anxiety, happiness, and mood), and Norepinephrine, which produces those “butterflies”.
Broken down into a list of chemical compounds, it all seems quite simple. A bit of this, a dash of that and bingo, a love potion.
There are scientists who believe such a thing is just around the corner, thanks in part to research conducted into chemical receptors in the brains of two different kinds of vole – one inclined to polyamory, the other to monogamy. “Could intranasal oxytocin,” asks one recent scientific paper, “be used to enhance relationships?”
But should we really reduce one of the celebrated mysteries of humanity into chemistry?
What might we lose as a culture if love could be bought over the counter?
These questions and many more are raised in British writer Lucy Prebble’s play The Effect, now playing at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.
Set in a pharmaceutical testing facility, the play is focused on two young subjects of a four-week trial of a new antidepressant super-drug. Connie is a psychology student. Tristan funds his easygoing lifestyle by renting his body out to for medical experiments. They’ve been warned of side effects.
Supervised by psychiatrist Dr James – who is herself being observed by a senior colleague – Connie and Tristan are to be isolated from the world for four weeks to see what develops as the dosage is increased.
At first, a flirty Tristan, possibly high on dopamine, is rebuffed. But after a while the drug takes hold. Suddenly they feel deep mutual passion, then a desperate need.
But what how much of what they feel is real and how much is a rush produced by the drug they’re taking? And given that love is all just chemical anyway, does it matter?
Connie and Tristan are played by Emilie Cocquerel and Firass Dirani.
“I just love the conversations these two characters have,” Dirani says. “You don’t have them in real life. It makes you think about all the stuff we’re not saying, the stuff you bite your tongue about.”
“Well, relationships, mainly,” Dirani says. “This play makes you feel a little uncomfortable because you are speaking out loud all those things … like the way you feel when you’re in love, and why you fall in love. It gets right into the specifics.
“You don’t hear people say ‘I am sick with missing you’ in real life,” Dirani adds. “Has someone ever said that to you? I think it is brave and courageous and beautiful, and to hear someone say it sparks something in yourself.
“It makes you question your own character. Am I really living to the full? Am I really present? Could I get more from every moment in life or am I just floating along and telling people what they want to hear?”
There will also be some adrenaline flowing, admits Dirani, who is best known for his television work. This is his first time on stage in 15 years. “I feel terrified but that’s why I auditioned.”
Prebble’s script doesn’t support any one view of the ethics of the experiment over another, says Cocquerel. “All four characters have opposing ideas and it really challenges you because I don’t think you spend any part of the play thinking, I agree with this person the most. Everyone is written so well and their arguments all have the same weight.”
And when Connie and Tristan argue, there’s no backing down, Cocquerel adds.
“Most of our real-life arguments are about things on the surface and not what is actually happening,” she says. “But Connie and Tristan are stuck in this trial together and they can’t get out when most people would just up and leave.
Here, they keep fighting and fighting and pulling each other apart. That’s why the love that is there feels so big, I think, because they see everything. It’s all on the table, there’s no hiding.”
Sydney audiences first saw The Effect in 2014 in a Sydney Theatre Company production directed by Sarah Goodes. The Old Fitzroy staging (directed by Andrew Henry for Red Line Productions) offers audiences a very different and more intimate experience of the play.
“The story lends itself to this space beautifully,” says Emma Jackson, who plays the supervising psychologist. “The audience gets to feel like they are part of the experiment, like they are watching a medical trial.”
The production also features a live score played by Benjamin Freeman and a very famous song by rock legends Queen.
“It’s the happiest song that has ever been written, apparently,” says Freeman. “It’s scientifically proven! When I am playing that song, I am accessing physical chords and a tempo that, when you put them together, actually increases the dopamine in your system. It’s like taking the drug of someone else’s music.”
Everything else is Freeman’s original composition. “It’s me putting my heart into how I feel about the show,” he says. “I don’t know how people will react but I’m quite sure it will create emotions people will connect to.”