I’m always a bit uncomfortable when I go into a theatre and the actors are already on stage. It makes you feel you are thrown into the performance without having the time to ‘prepare’ yourself for what you are going to see. But maybe, being thrown into The Effect is what the characters themselves are feeling. The play is such that, if we don’t experience what Connie (Ellie Lowenthal) and Tristan (Calam Lynch) are living, we won’t be able to understand much.
An experiment is taking place, a new anti-depressive is being trialled. And this is used as a way to raise big questions. How much do drugs and pills affect our own life? How much does our life depend on or maybe consist of mere chemicals? How can we be sure that what we feel is real, and the person doing the feeling is really ‘us’? It would be tempting of a play to simply raise these questions and leave them unanswered, floating in the air. But the play finds the right balance between creating dilemmas and subtly pointing to a solution – which, for the audience, is kind of a relief.
Particularly powerful is the exchange between the two doctors, where the effectiveness of the anti-depressive is discussed. Opinions are divided, and everything seems to be circular: the symptoms observed could be due to the drug, and giving the impression in the patients that they are in love, or the patients could have fallen in love independently. The play thus reflects on love from different perspectives, although the focus is very much on physicality. The suspicion is never raised that love may also come from witty conversation, intellectual engagement and sharing of values. All this is shadowed by the uncontrollable power of emotions, which drag away everything they find on their way. But the attention of the play is clearly somewhere else, and what it investigates is brilliantly done. ‘The Effect’ is a great play, thought-provoking like few theatrical performances can be. Furthermore, it does so without falling into a mere philosophical inquiry or making us lose interest in what is going on between Connie and Tristan.
The actors are all extremely talented, Connie in particular, and span out the complex dynamics created by the artificial and/or natural dopamine rush. The dialogue is brilliant, never prosaic, but constantly engaging. The only moment in which the play gets perhaps slightly over didactic is the monologue on mental health, which is useful to contextualise the whole thing. It, perhaps, slows down things a bit too much. One clever expedient is making the framework of the play (setting, gestures, corollary characters, music) extremely factual and stiff, and making the doctors moving in a simultaneous and twitchy way. As if it was possible to contain and quantify the elusive mystery of love in a few facts, gestures, or in a play even.