story David Chia, Arts Editor
What better way to study human behavior than to spend an evening watching Lucy Prebble’s The Effect directed by Ziyad Bagharib ’18 at the National Library Blackbox?
Set in a drug trial unit at Rauschen Pharmaceuticals, the play revolves around the love story of psychology student Connie (Krissy Jesudason) and flirtatious class clown Tristan (Johnson Chong), who funds his peripatetic lifestyle by selling his body and brain to science. As if sitting in an uncomfortable waiting room, we as the audience examine the trials of a new antidepressant RLU 37 by psychiatrist Dr. James (Chio Su Ping) who is supervised by senior colleague Toby (Prem John).
The set-up seizes us instantly. Prebble’s punchy writing, mired in dry British humor, is instantly reminiscent of the same existentialist dilemma that Shakespeare deals with in Hamlet. What makes us, us? Instead of the star-crossed lovers, Prebble gives us drug-crossed ones instead. Connie and Tristan become attached fairly quickly, but they can’t be sure if it’s love or just their elevated dopamine levels. From low-key feelings to a heart-tearing need, their relationship is iffy. “I can tell the difference between who I am and a side effect,” Tristan declares. How much of it is real? And how much of it is a side effect from the increasing dopamine dosage produced by the “viagra for the heart” drug?
The Effect is loaded with debate: the premises are well set-up to discuss—almost too neatly—materialism (our being is nothing more than our brains), and dualism (the mind exists outside the brain). Indeed, Prebble’s script has a scientific neatness to it, juxtaposed with repetitions of the phrase “don’t know”, and subverted by a Shaw-like verbosity and a sense of Big Brother voyeurism. It digs into the mysteries of the mind and examines the nature of depression. Are antidepressant drugs any more than a placebo? Is being depressed merely part of the human condition, or is it a curable illness?
Kris Jesudasan and Johnson Chong are superb, despite losing elements of the classic British wryness by assuming American dispositions. Emotionally vulnerable and physically dynamic, they can trust neither each other nor themselves. Equally nuanced is Chio Su Ping as the psychiatrist; her stony demeanor veils an internal ferment triggered by the aristocratic ignorance of Prem John as Toby. And yet, the multi-tiered set undermined the performance by distracting the audience. The exploration of intimate themes like love, guilt and the mysteries of the human heart is lost in the expansive stage. Coupled with shaky transitions, the clinically white ground has, at times, made movements clumsy to watch and scenes slightly ungrounded. This is redeemed by the lighting and multimedia design—the subtle blue hues convey conjectures of modern science, poetically capturing the dichotomous tensions of mystery and clarity.
The Effect is a rich and rewarding play, as intelligent as it is deeply human. Although the jarring stylistic transition from Act I to Act II lost some of Prebble’s tragicomic undertones, the play struck me as being wonderfully executed, raising more questions than answers, and granting integrity to a complex subject.
In his directorial debut, Bagharib ’18 did an amazing job in creating a human zoo where we are made the objects of examination. There is a beautiful tenderness and crude grace (literally, masturbation) about the ending that effortlessly captures the moral ambiguity of the production. My only issue with the play is that it attempts to delve into too many issues (pharmaceutical industry, science, human existentialism, depression, mystery of love, and philosophy), leaving the audience loaded with too much in one sitting.
Yet, it’s difficult to be immune to The Effect: its schematic play of semantics is entertaining, and it is frequently funny and genuinely thought-provoking. The optimism of present-day advances in science and medical research ends in a tragic gesture similar to that of Hamlet–except in this case, the four characters perish not in physicality but in mind.
Correction: An earlier version of the article mispelled Krissy Jesudason’s name. We apologise for the error. The article was updated to reflect this change on Sept. 15 at 10.15 pm.