We’re accustomed to the idea that symptoms of depression can be eased by taking a pill.
In Australia, we do it a lot. In fact, only Iceland consumes more antidepressants per capita.
But would we embrace a pill that could enhance and sustain feelings of love with the same enthusiasm?
A Viagra for the heart?
These questions – and more – are raised in British writer Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, a play set in a pharmaceutical research lab where volunteers are testing a new antidepressant.
There are many in the trial but Prebble focuses on two of them: psychology student Connie (Emilie Cocquerel) and Tristan (Firass Dirani), a charming if peripatetic twentysomething raising cash to fund his freewheeling lifestyle.
Almost immediately, the drug seems to be producing an unsuspected side effect. It’s making Connie and Tristan fall deeply, completely and dangerously in love.
Should Lorna (Emma Jackson), the supervising psychologist pull the plug on the trial? That would be the humane thing to do.
But big pharma representative Toby (Johnny Nasser) – a TED-talk star and troubling old flame of Lorna’s – has other ideas.
Milligram by milligram, the dosage is increased. Day by day, Connie and Tristan’s feelings for each other grow unbearably intense.
Directed by Andrew Henry, this is a close-up staging of a play that had its Sydney premiere in 2014 at the STC.
Played in a traverse arrangement on an elongated diamond shaped floor of white tiles (a Brodie Simpson design, lit by Alexander Berlage), it can feel like you are watching an experiment from the other side of a two-way mirror. Catalytic input comes from composer-pianist Benjamin Freeman, perched above the action.
The early scenes of the play are appealing, with Cocquerel and Dirani playfully transparent as Connie and Tristan dance around their mutual attraction.
As those feelings become more volatile, so does their physical language. Eyes widen, gestures expand. The dialogue develops a jagged quality.
Against this, Jackson offers contrasting colours as the buttoned-down Lorna, whose professional distance masks the emotional turmoil reawakened by Nasser’s Toby, a conference circuit ladies man.
A five-minute interval – more of a pause, really – straddles a pivotal scene between Connie and Tristan, but the urgency in their encounter proves difficult to pick up again and the production develops a somewhat forced, melodramatic quality that undermines our investment in the characters and their predicament.
The scenes take on a uniform edge of desperation that feels repetitive, though later a welcome sense of emotional equilibrium is re-established in the play’s coda, in which a new experiment in love seems poised to begin.