“Do I love you?” asks Tristan, a volunteer on a drug trial. Astonishingly, the answer isn’t always clear in Lucy Prebble’s drama, which weaves blind experiments and medical parables into a cloudy romance. Love, the work posits, might not be that transcendent connection between individuals but rather the name we give to the release, induced or otherwise, of dopamine in the brain.
The definition remains compellingly blurred throughout Rough Magic’s industrious production. Responding to a questionnaire, drug volunteer Connie (Siobhán Cullen), a student interested in psychology, considers herself sad but not depressed, insisting that the latter requires scientific proof. Tristan (Donal Gallery), a peddler full of fancies, responds to the same questions but in a playful and anarchic manner. People say opposites attract but Prebble is determined to confound romantic conventions (the two first meet between urine samples).
When they sneak away into the shell of an old mental asylum (an apt metaphor), Gallery’s boyish Tristan reveals his belief in God and his plans to visit picturesque places across the world. Cullen’s Connie, caustic yet charming, disregards such escapes as delusions. In other words, a romantic meets a realist. But as their number of dosages increase, so does their attraction to each other. Is this chemistry real or created?
Director Ronan Phelan’s fluid staging has the flexibility to lean both ways. The audience, sitting in the round, can observe an experiment grounded in reality. Sarah Bacon’s set is robustly factual in its placing of medical apparatus and monitors that come lucidly to life in Adam Gibney’s AV design. But as the characters’ bond deepens, the action takes on sly embellishments: an accompanying melody rises from Denis Clohessy’s sound design, and Sarah Jane Shiels’s lighting abandons realistic displays for a more imagistic sphere.
Prebble frames this question of love within an institutional argument. Lorna (a beguiling Ali White), the psychotherapist overseeing the trial, will argue that the drug trial is compromised due to environmental factors. But Toby (superb Ronan Leahy), a government advisor on pharmaceuticals, is the smug voice of an extreme vision of psychiatry and believes that individuals’ mental illness should be intensely medicated. The play reprimands such a view (“So-called depressed people have a more accurate view of the world,” reminds Lorna).
Despite the drama’s illusions, its final moments are vividly clear, in the ordinary routines of care and coping (for better and worse). “Do I love you?” asks Tristan again. There’s a good chance the answer is yes: passion in Prebble’s play can persist for a long time.
The Effect is on at Project Arts Centre in Dublin until 1st April 2017. Click here for more details.