To Think or to Feel: ‘The Effect’ at the National Theatre- Review

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'The Effect' at the National Theatre

★★★✰✰

The most immediately striking thing is not the stage – a bare, antiseptic square adorned with two opposing chairs on either end and a lone, mysterious bucket – but where it’s been placed. As the audience files into the Lyttelton Theatre for the first preview of the buzzy new staging of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, they find themselves flanking the stage from both sides. For the play’s duration, the audience will be eminently visible from either side, their faces illuminated by Jon Clark’s lighting, their silent observation rendering them just short of active participants in the drama unfolding at the room’s centre. The immediate impression is of medical students, practitioners and the merely curious, all ushered into an operating theatre-like space to witness medical research taking shape. Swiftly, this immediate, sleekly stylish approach provides the key to both the great strength and ultimate weakness of both Prebble’s material and director Jamie Lloyd’s staging.

The research project in question is a clinical drug trial for a new antidepressant, overseen by two driven psychiatrists, each with diametrically opposed end goals (Michele Austin and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, respectively). Tristan (Paapa Essiedu) and Connie (Taylor Russell) are their proverbial guinea pigs. The spare, four-person set-up is a natural fit for the famed minimalism of Lloyd and set designer Soutra Gilmour. Their recent Cyrano de Bergerac made a haunting virtue of stripping away such adornments as swords, swishing capes and protuberant schnozzes, the better to see the pained romantic ardour of the titular wordsmith laid bare. Here too, there are no distractions from our central players. The audience has been positioned as the trial’s chief assessors, and as Tristan and Connie strike up a flirtation that swiftly advances to passionate mutual infatuation, the verdict on whether theirs is the authentic, ineffable kind of love or merely the result of chemical alterations is ultimately left to us.

For a time, the results are fascinating. Nowhere is The Effect more gripping than in the first steps of the subjects’ burgeoning connection, the two stars providing an electric study in opposing yet magnetically attracted personalities. As Tristan, Essiedu vibrates with nervous energy, his anxiety released in near-constant, fidgeting motion, his newfound passions pursued with nervy, single-minded purpose. By contrast, Russell clasps Connie’s own anxieties tightly to herself. In responding to Tristan’s flirtations, she appears lightly amused by her own reciprocity, pursuing her feelings to their end point to satisfy her questing intellectual curiosity, until she too finds herself suddenly and powerfully overcome. As the two tentatively bond, they advance and recede, circling one another as if engaged in a slow-motion dance, accompanied by the ever-present throb of Michael Asante’s music. However, in spite of the febrile humanity projected by the performers, or perhaps to some degree because of it, The Effect’s lasting impact is paradoxically chilly for a play about the workings of the human heart.

With each increase of the trial’s dosage, the two leads are left all the more unmoored, scrambling for an emotional foothold and fearful of the prospect of a possible placebo being introduced into the mix. From all appearances, the play’s emotional temperature ought to be skyrocketing in tandem with their fears. However, as Tristan and Connie can never be wholly certain of their own feelings, neither can we. With every passionate outburst couched within the ambiguity of its origins, the clinical remove with which we observe the action onstage only increases over time. Many of Prebble’s needling, provocative themes are openly articulated in conversation between the two doctors overseeing the proceedings. Is depression the result of a chemical imbalance clung to with fidelity by its victims, or simply the saner, more rational response to the world as it is? Are our deepest, most primal emotions truly a reflection of who we are, or also the mere sum of our chemicals? However, in The Effect’s attempts to delicately thread feeling with theory, it can feel like the former has been subordinated to the latter. Despite resonant, often drily funny performances from Austin and Holdbrook-Smith, few of their debates fully persuade as human drama, and after a time, the same is true of the largely theoretical passion shared between the two leads. Come the play’s still ambiguous but largely hopeful conclusion, we remain perched within the vantage of scientific objectivity, unable to join the protagonists in their agonies and joys. After all, to succumb in such a fashion wouldn’t make for much of a fair trial.

Words by Thomas Messner


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