Sex on emotional Viagra
Love is a many splendored thing. Or maybe not. In Lucy Prebble’s award winning play, “The Effect,” love, desire, and sexual attraction might not be quite what we think they are. Love might be nothing more than the effect of a biological fact. That fact being that we are determined solely by our brains, which are influenced by the release of chemicals, natural, manufactured, or imagined, which produce physical, sexual and emotional highs. Highs shaped by, and shaping, our brains, which determine everything we think, feel, experience or believe. Yet is that all we are? A chemical reaction in a brain in a bucket? If so, what remains when our brains are lost to amnesia or dementia? Like Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception,” Prebble’s “The Effect” explores what happens when chemicals designed to alter our moods are introduced into the body. Thoughtful and thought provoking, “The Effect” sets out to ask if chemistry is indeed what happens when you meet someone you like.
Meeting during a clinical trial for the anti-depressant, agent RLU37, life loving Tristan, and pragmatist Connie, find they have nothing much in common. Yet as the trial progresses both are irresistibly drawn to each other. Sparks fly and soon they're enjoying sex on drugs, as well as one another’s thoughts, smells, laughter and presence. But is the attraction real or is it just the drugs talking? Doctor Lorna James, test administrator and potential candidate for the drug herself should it prove successful, isn’t entirely sure and worries for the wellbeing of her test subjects. But her superior, and former lover, the conference lothario Doctor Toby Sealey, insists they press on. When the trial ends, the real trial begins, with choices needing to be made in light of unexpected side effects. Yet aren’t side effects just the effects we don’t, or sometimes do, want?
In Prebble’s sharp script there's a fundamental tension between science and story. If its ideas are often fascinating, and its characters share moments that border on the sublime, “The Effect” often shifts uneasily between the two. While never exactly clunky, apart from the manner in which Tristian’s fatal flaw is flown in from nowhere late in the day, ideas can nudge story out of the way on occasion, turning characters into mouthpieces. Being played in the round allows director Ronan Phelan open up a variety of perspectives, reinforcing the sense of multiple perspectives being debated. But there’s always a price for playing in the round and, at times, depending on where you're sitting, crucial moments lose some of their impact. But Phelan’s design team amply compensate with a sharp and economical design, one that leans heavily towards the clinical without ever being cold. Sarah Bacon’s thoughtful costume and set designs conceal the designer’s rigour behind an apparent, yet clever, simplicity. Sarah Jane-Shiels lighting design, along with Adam Gibney’s AV design, bring a sci-fi flavour to proceedings, including a direct head nod to “Bladerunner,” with Denis Clohessy’s understated music and sound design wonderfully establishing the intellectual and emotional tone.
With ideas sometimes clashing with character, performances are placed under additional strains that prove problematic in places. Ronan Leahy’s doctor with Daddy issues being a case in point, with the underdeveloped, supporting doctor never quite igniting beyond being a mouthpiece for his unswerving position. A position Ali White manages to push against with great conviction, her deeper fears and darkness gradually seeping out from behind her professional façade. Siobhán Cullen as the complex Connie, a woman whose ideas battle hard with her feelings, occasionally slips into being a mouthpiece for ideas in the script. But when she lives and breathes the living Connie, Cullen is simply devastating. As is Donal Gallery whose thought-less Tristian is both powerful and a sheer delight. Together, Cullen and Gallery are utterly mesmerising, infusing harmonica playing or post coital playfulness with a palpable joy you want to overdose on. The chemistry between them crackles as they craft some sublime moments of togetherness.
Are we Pavlovian dogs who, under the right conditions, naturally release chemicals which induce an experience we call love? An experience that might as easily be replicated pharmaceutically? If the brain is just an organ, why don’t we have brain transplants? If chemicals enhance our mood, is our natural state depressed? Facing into a pharmaceutical and genetically engineered future, these are the timely questions “The Effect” sets out to intelligently explore. Big questions from a brave play that will have you thinking long after you’ve left the theatre. A play you should go and see. For whatever the answers, and whatever the cause, “The Effect” is sharp, smart, and irresistibly sexy.
“The Effect” by Lucy Prebble’s, produced by Rough Magic Theatre Company, runs at The Project Arts Centre until April 1st