The Effect is theatre in fifth gear. It's a tightly plotted and thoroughly researched psychodrama with a questioning, unsatisfied undercurrent, and a very real and sympathetic view of human interaction. It is full of neat, apposite summations, but the neat phrasing underlines the messy and sometimes desperate surfaces of the reality it is depicting.
The action takes place at a clinical trial for a new anti-depressant. The two participants are students: young, unsuspecting and optimistic in their different ways. Their supervising doctor has a patrician air, but her veneer-thin authority is subverting itself and is not helped by the reappearance from her past of another doctor who is managing the whole trial. As we follow the test subjects, Connie and Tristan, through their unfolding story, we are allowed to believe what we are seeing. But almost every assumption that we make will be proved wrong in a series of plot twists that left many members of the audience literally gasping, such was the sympathy we had for these believable and engaging characters. After a while we start to do our own detective work, but even if we suspect a knife point around the corner, its appearance is still shocking.
The flesh under the skin of this play, however, is a series of complex and intelligent questions, firstly about the nature and structure of feelings and relationships. As the two test subjects fall in love, Connie (the relatively sober yin to Tristan's relatively raging yang) realises that it could be the drugs. Is it really love? What is "real" love anyway? Does it matter? Not to Tristan...and eventually not to Connie either. But more satisfying at times is the repeated failure to express, or to be Heard, accurately - the depiction of which is in itself eloquent beyond words. Connie, dutiful student and methodical plodder, is for a while a prisoner of her life's logical argument. Tristan on the other hand is the blithe toddler rushing headlong towards danger; for him rationality is merely a naively used tool of seduction and persuasion, idiotic but appealing. For damaged psychoanalyst Dr James, desperate to do right by her charges, rationality and language are the emergency flare fired from a burning deck, her intelligence and humanity a desperate wild animal corralled by her understanding of how she will be heard by others. And for Dr Sealey, an enjoyably rendered Big Pharma pragmatist, language and rationality are weapons and concealments. He knows that every word he utters in his schema is another brick in the wall he is building between him and other people. What good are words to any of these characters? The very effort each of them must go to in order to finally actually communicate the reality they are experiencing is disturbing. Words are blunt objects, and like the unsubtle medical telemetry recorded above the characters' heads, they are doomed to be viewed out of focus, and sometimes even deliberately misused. Every dialogue underlines the inadequacy of our usual dialectic as a means of convincingly communicating the full truth of a moment, and in matters of the head, or the heart, the devil is in the unspeakable detail. Even inside one's own head, as in the soliloquy of Dr James to a literally cerebral Yorick, the inhuman building-block logic of syntax resolves nothing, answers badly, alienates, and serves only to further sunder the observer from the observed. For me, her frozen-tidal-wave of depression was the most affecting moment in the play, a scientific lecture which inevitably bursts into a litany of self-hatred. And yet are we to trust this series of words any more than the others? Is her self-hatred accurate? Is there in her desperate litany a grain of the Truth or is her desperation yet another tragic function of shoehorning a multi-coloured three dimensional life into the cold grey mathematics of language?
A top notch script, with a real world feel, tearfully bloody-nosed and frantic at times, gave the able cast a massive amount of scope for each of them to hit every emotional button in their audience, chaperoned by a director (Ronan Phelan) whose sense of dynamic never wavered. Prebble's research feels real, which does her subject a very dignified service, and left me with much food for thought. But it's the engagement with the characters and the twisty plot that make this such a pleasure to watch.
Bryan for DRAFF
The Effect, directed by Ronan Phelan for Rough Magic, runs at Project Arts Centre until 1st April. Image: Ros Kavanagh.
Posted: 29th March 2017