Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Effect

National Theatre, South Bank, London in a co-production with Headlong presents the World Premiere of THE EFFECT by Lucy Prebble in the Cottesloe Theatre.

I saw this production in London, in early January, 2013.

THE EFFECT by Lucy Prebble is a co-production between the National Theatre (NT) and Headlong. This play is the follow-on of the partnership between Ms Prebble and the director Rupert Goold of the Headlong company, that created and presented ENRON, firstly at the Chichester Festival and then on transfer to the Royal Court Jerwood Downstairs Theatre and, subsequently,to the Noel Coward Theatre, in the West End, in 2009. I saw ENRON, in the ill-fated production on Broadway, in 2010.
Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair 
-Andrew Solomon, from The Noonday Demon, 2001.

THE EFFECT is a play for four actors and is set in a research facility for a large pharmaceutical company studying the efficacy of a new drug regime in pursuit of relief for depression. Two volunteers, who are being paid to do so, two Triallists, not known to be sufferers of depression, Connie (Billie Piper) and Tristan (Jonjo O'Neil) meet over the first exchange of their urine to the Doctors. They begin the trial and are measured closely, with brain scans etc for the benefits of the drug-given regime, as it escalates and processes over the time of the research. The rules for the trial are strict but these two, whether it be because of the drugs or not, find themselves in a burgeoning affair, catapulted into sexual intercourse after a tap-dancing wooer seduces all, to the tune "I've Got You Under My Skin". Both of these volunteers have emotional baggage and history - she, a part-time psychology student with a teetering outside relationship; he, a free wheeling wastrel not anchored by any firm view for his life's future. What complicates the matter is that Connie suspects that one of them may be on a placebo, and as they try to ascertain as to whether their 'love' for each other is the result of the drugs or otherwise, strain and paranoia sets in: to darkening abysses of hell!
In classical times, when such things were properly understood, Eros was considered a god whose divinity transcended our human limits, and who therefore could be neither comprehended nor represented in any way. I might, as many before me have attempted to do, venture an approach to this daimon, whose range of activity extends from the endless spaces of the heavens to the dark abysses of hell; but I falter before the task of finding the language which might adequately express the incalculable paradoxes of love.
 - Carl Jung.
Supervising the trial is a psychiatrist, Doctor James (Anastasia Hille), employed and directed by another doctor, Toby (Tom Goodman-Hill), representative of the pharmaceutical company undertaking the trial. The complication here is that, once, upon a time, not to distant, these two met at a convention and had a love affair, and we learn that Dr James, is herself susceptible to episodes of depression. Her last bout may have being triggered with the breakdown of their relationship.
Love is merely a madness; and, I tell you, deserves as well as a dark horse and a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not so punish'd and cured is that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too.   
Shakespeare, AS YOU LIKE IT.
The play tackles some big subjects: love; the role of placebos in medicine; the ethics around research been done by commercially biased interests and their ability to read the results accurately, objectively; when reading the scientific-babble, neuroscience literature about the brain, contemporaneously - just how much do the scientists really know of it? how much should we believe "the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry"? ; whether depression is reaching epidemic status and is simply a chemical imbalance in the brain which the pharmaceutical companies can relieve; or, more simply that depression is a normal, natural state that the super sensitive have always experienced - a natural part of the human condition rather than illness, and that neuroscience does not have the right to be the ultimate arbiter of any human activity; if pain can be relieved, should medication be a safety valve to be able to endure, accepting that it cannot cure, rather just dulling, temporarily the symptoms?; are the after effects worth the risks?

So, here we have two love stories wrapped within a big contemporary debate on issues of great import. Here is an example of the kind of writing that I find so rarely in Australian playscripts. Particularly, of late. Big ideas entwined in an ordinary rom-com mode. Serious, romantic, comic and tragic. Challenging. Intelligent. Researched!

Rupert Goold (we have seen some of his work: SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR) has directed this work in the round in the Cottesloe Theatre, with an immersive set, by Miriam Buether (the second set of her's I have seen in this visit: IN THE REPUBLIC OF HAPPINESS, at the Royal Court, being the other), the audience sitting as if in the waiting room of the clinic, surrounding the actors and their spaces, with some projection design to enhance the science and its explications - not too much - on the surrounding walls and floor, with lighting by Jon Clark and music by Sarah Angliss and sound design by Christoher Shutt.

The performances are gripping and in this small space totally enveloping, Ms Piper and Mr O'Neill travelling through the travails of 'love' and its consequences, and Mr Goodman-Hill anchoring the debate for commercial science balancing the love debris with Anastasia Hille's remarkably detailed and ultimately, dreadfully moving Dr James, from objective clinician to fragile depressant to surrendering survivor. Ms Hille's work is amazing, surrounded by an ensemble of near flawless immersion and support.

The little we know about love does not transcend simple observation, and the little we write about it has been written better by poets and novelists. But of greater concern is the fact that psychologists tend to give progressively less attention to a motive which pervades our entire lives. Psychologists, at least psychologists who write textbooks, not only show no interest in the origin and development of love or affection, but they seem to be unaware of its very existence." 
 - Harry Harlow, American psychologist, 1958.

One can only hope that Sydney gets to see this play, sooner, rather than, later. Lucy Prebbles a writer of some skill and importance. THE SUGAR SYNDROME, ENRON , THE EFFECT. What's next?

P.S. ENRON is to be seen at the New Theatre in the coming months. It is a mammoth undertaking and I wish that company the best, but, like the New Theatre's artistic management, I agree, it is too important a play not to be seen in Sydney. Too big, I guess for the Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir and their budgets?


That Guy said...

You're developing a somewhat pointed tone towards Belvoir and the STC. For better or worse (and I'd say, mostly for better), the local companies have moved away from just doing a photostat of what the West End and Broadway did last year (to pick examples - Neil Armfield's last season had its weakest point with the two UK imports, "That Face" and "The Power of Yes", and its strongest with classics and new plays ("Measure for Measure", "Diary of a Madman", "Forget Me Not" and "Namitjira"). Sydney Theatre Company has 5 new Australian Plays and 5 classics to go in their current season (plus one import, "One Man Two Govenors" ... the STC approach seems to be that New British or American Plays come in with their original production attached (e.g. The History Boys, August: Osage County or One Man Two Govenors), rather than trying to badly recreate something that worked elsewhere).

And it it is a Good Thing that Australian Theatre is genuinely Australian, and not the photocopies you seem to long for.

That Guy said...

How about Too English for Belvoir and STC and their managements?

You seem to have a great problem with Australian Theatre being allowed to be genuinely Australian, rather than just a photocopy of what was on the West End and Broadway. The truth is that's not the reason for the state theatre companies and that's never been what they've been good at, with very rare exceptions.

To pick two examples - Belvoir in Neil Armfield's final season had it's greatest flops with the two fresh-from-the-UK plays (That Face and The Power of Yes) and its greatest successes with Australian Plays and Classics (Forget Me Not, Measure for Measure, Namitjira and The Diary of a Madman). STC currently

STC has 5 australian Plays and 5 classics to go this season (with one import, and in this case it's genuinely an import, bringing the originating company over to do it) - and that seems to be the STC method these days that works best, actually bringing the production along with them (History Boys and August Osage County certainly suggest this is the best approach, rather than trying to do a pale Australian imitation).

I understand you want a photostat theatre in which Australian directors and performers are required to imitate something that was a hit overseas. But that's not something that works with Australian audiences and it isn't something that really leads to us having our own theatre - it just leads to us being a regional outlet of Theatre Inc, serving up half-sized imitations.

Kevin Jackson said...

Hi That Guy,

Thanks for your early morning comment.

I don't know whether my tone is pointed or not, but I do believe that the Sydney Theatre Company and Belvoir, our two largest, and maybe best subsidised companies, have a responsibility to present the best quality work available for the audiences, subscribers, regular theatre goers or the occasional visitor to see.
I think that the works we see should be a mix of the Classic, the best International Contemporary and the best Contemporary Australian work as well. The best of their kinds. There are, of course, only so many plays that can be produced a year - the curating opportunities, then, is finite in number.

I am particularly interested in two kinds of plays. Good plays that are contemporaneously relevant and assist me to understand the world I live in. For example, THE POWER OF YES or ENRON or THE EFFECT or SILENT DISCO. In other words provocative texts of social relevance. And plays that exhibit outstanding playwriting qualities - particularly language. For example, of late, THE MOTHERF**KER WITH A HAT, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, TRUCK STOP. ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS. It should be noted that these plays exhibit in my experience both properties. Indeed, if the plays have both qualities then all the better.

In my history of theatre going I have never known any of the Sydney Companies to do a 'photostat' of the West End or Broadway seasons, it would be impossible to do that, as there are so many more productions collectively and even singularly in each of those places than was ever possible to present here. Even the Old Tote season tended to choose maybe 3 Classics, 3 International Contemporary and 3 or more Australian works. So it is wrong of you to think it is a recent move. It seems to me that might be the 'rough' plan for the STC, now?

My observation is that the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) seems to keep much more actively abreast of the better International writing and present a repertoire of more challenging works - it is a subjective point-of-view. The MTC even went so far as to give Australian artists the opportunity to solve two quite interesting plays that the Sydney Theatre Company presented with overseas companies: THE HISTORY BOYS and AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. I enjoyed the two companies that presented in Sydney from overseas, but wondered what the Australian artists had brought to the playwright. Certainly, those Australian artists, probably enjoyed the challenge and benefited from those opportunities. I do not believe from what friends have told me that the Melbourne productions of the two mentioned plays were 'badly created' in their 'trying' of something that worked well elsewhere.

Kevin Jackson said...

I managed to see THE POWER OF YES both in London at the National Theatre and Belvoir in Sydney. The productions were different, principally because of the kind of stage and scale of the venue the work was presented in, and the size of the budget. You felt the Belvoir production was 'a flop', I disagree. I was pleased to see the Australian take on the play made by Mr Strong and his artists, as different as it might have been, to the English company, as it was. It was a great opportunity to see Australian artists allowed to be genuinely Australian in dealing with the play for us. It was no problem for me I can assure you. (They did use the text as written, as well.)

I do not believe that either, THAT FACE or THE POWER OF YES were too English - the latter, particularly world relevant indeed. The GFC and its consequences has affected us all and still does. ENRON is a powerful play that corporations would rather it did not exist. Not only is it wonderfully, theatrically conceived but it is also very, very, informative for a lay person like myself to learn in such an erudite way as to how that disaster was allowed to be. The scale of the production was,maybe, forbidding for the Sydney Theatre Company? THE EFFECT is not, and so I live in hope, for Lucy Prebbles is a playwright all interested theatre goers should know.

It is interesting that Belvoir, it seems had commissioned Lally Katz to write a work concerning the GFC, and instead we have her raconteur's journey looking for a mystic to tell her future instead - I understand, well done , but hardly of real social interest. Was Ms Katz the right person to commission for that task in the first place? I have not read any of her work that would suggest that is where interests lie as a writer. Was she somebody's friend who cbelieved in her capacity to stretch her vision? I remember the STC commissioning a project called MONEY SHOTS which, like wise was to talk about the GFC and didn't. The Australian writer has failed to talk about it at all, and yet I am suffering because of it on a daily basis, as is the International world. Rather glad that I had the opportunity to see THE POWER OF YES and ENRON. I will be glad to see ENRON again, despite the misgivings of the lack of budget that the New Theatre will have to do such a work, well. The text is mightily important and the Australian audience should be in on the debate from an eductaed place, don't you think?

You are wrong to project your "understanding" of me that I want "a photostat theatre in which Australian directors and performers are required to imitate something that was a hit overseas."

I am an artist, too, I have a sense of what we are all trying to do.

To begin with any artist practicing in Australia , who was something more than a puppet or automaton, could not photostat or duplicate the original English or American production, simply, to begin with, because they live in Australia and are Australian. To own the text, any text they have to relate, personalise it from themselves to tell a truth From their Australianess, their organic self. Our job is to fit that Australianess, all of it, respectfully into the container of the writer's world. - vocabulary, syntax dialect, given circumstances of the origin of the material and all!

Kevin Jackson said...

…I was fortunate to be a member of the Sydney Theatre Company's production of THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY. An English play that we Australian artists created from our Australian personalisations. It was a tremendous success -critically, artistically and financially.

We did believe that we had done the playwright honour by 'reading' his demands accurately. We also believed that we were faithful to re-creating Dicken's mid-19th Century English characters from a wide variety of classes and localities.

Several months after the end of the STC production a group of us watched the Royal Shakespeare Company's production on video, of the same play. What struck us was the amazing difference of interpretations we had all bought to our work to that of the English company.

Speaking, personally, I had created characters based on my own first hand Australian knowledge of the source material and my reading of history, and what struck me was that a major difference to my work, our work, was that we were playing caricatures of the English 'types' , I was mightily inspired, especially by the David Lean Dickensian films, and other Hollywood versions, usually played by English ex-patriot actors. I was an Anglo-irish Australian actor looking at these English 'dudes', based on Dicken's novel, these ex-gaol keepers of my ancestors ,and coming up with what fitted my truths that I felt the audience could believe and have acces too, to have a good time with this play. In contrast, the English Company were creating the world of their great-great grandparents - they saw them as flesh and blood,relatives, I saw them as exaggerations of a culture, ripe for exposure.
Our set was different, our staging was different, our costumes were different, our acting was different, because we were Australians together telling this story with all our knowledge and skills.

If the Australian artist is imitating the overseas production then he or she are not an artist. It is, at any rate, an impossible thing to do. You are too simplistic in what you understand the artist does to create for the theatre.

My major criticism is that the Australian auteurs do not respect the writer's contribution -they run roughshod over the writer's work. To not to attempt to honestly wrestle with the demands of that writer is to avoid and reduce that writer to a lesser stratum.
My principal bug bear is that the writer is the source of all our work and our job (even legally, according to COPYWRIGHT laws) is to attempt to create what the writer intended, with all the resources we have available, not dismantle the source material. As with my above example, it will be always Australian, we will 'manipulate' it from our lives, our Australian lives. Even my American accent will be through an Australian filter. It is Australian because we are Australian.

Kevin Jackson said...

Further points bubbling up in me:

How much of the subsidy given to the major companies is actually spent on the artists?
How much goes to paying the wages of the administration of the companies?
Slash the infra-structure and employ artists- a solution?
Are the wages of the artists, usually in casual contracted states, fair in relation to workers in full time work positions in the administration?
The STC has 3 actors on stage in their venue at the moment. One is from Sydney. What happens to the rest of us?
Can we afford to work in this industry?
One does know, doesn't one, that the lively Independent scene in Sydney is hardly if ever receiving wages. Is that well known?

I am simply at advocate for my self and my fellow artists. I have never begun these conversations. The Companies do when they present the season and deliver the work. I pay to see it (mostly) and these are my concerns.
This is an International culture now. The high tech age gives us the opportunity to see the NT and other International Companies (The MET at the Opera) and their work at a very regular rate now.
It is very sad to see some 15 or 18 actors taking a curtain call at the end of the broadcast of PEOPLE by Alan Bennett and know, down at our major house, the STC, we have 3 actors bowing and a whole co-hort of English actors in the National Theatre production of ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, DON'T YOU THINK? across the road.
By the way THat GUy, I do believe that PEOPLE is too English. for our company to do. However, have you seen the response to that piece of Englishness from the general public. EXTRA SCREENINGS.!!!! Mr Bennett is a good writer - not my favourite - but a GREAT writer. Should we not see his work.

Thank WORKHORSE THEATRE COMPANY now at the Tap Gallery and go and see a writer that we would not otherwise see in this city. This theatre holds 80 (?) people, how many more theatregoers would love and benefit from seeing this very good American play?

That Guy said...

First of all - apologies for the double post - I was under the impression my first post hadn't gone throuhg, hence the virtual rewrite of the same point twice.

Second - The STC actually has 9 australian actors in two different australian plays at the moment (Fury is at Wharf 1 with a cast of 7, Dance Better at Parties in at Wharf 2 with a cast of 2). I don't know where you got the number of 3 actors from.

The NT live approach seems to me to indicate that the STC is taking the right approach with this - why import this stuff that audiences can see the original production of perfectly well anyway (the case of "one Man two Governors" befuddles me, because many of the people seeing seem to have already seen the NT Live version - in effect, they're going to see the same thing all over again, just live this time, and paying up to $105 for the privelege...)

I think it's widely known that the independant scene works on passion, not money. And 'twas ever thus. Co-operatives, independant theatre, amateur, whatever you want to call it, there's always been more people willing to do theatre at low/nil wages and more opportunity for them to do so than there has been paying work.

I see the vast list of employees in the programs of the STC and Belvoir, but what I don't see is who's working there full-and-part time - I don't see who's being paid what and whether those moneys can be spent better elsewhere. Can you say hand on your heart that you know money is being wasted?

As for "The Power of Yes" and other possible plays about the Global Financial Crisis - the big revelation of The Power of Yes was that much of it was due to horrendous trading practices by financial institutions. Practices that are, and always have been, illegal in Australia. So we never had a bank even close to collapsing in the way the US or the UK frequently did at the hight of the GFC.

It's difficult to write a drama about a crisis that never happened. Quite possibly impossible. So... while it was nice to know about the crisis that was going on overseas ... it kinda felt like watching a drama about the battles between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, or about David Cameron's big-society conservatism. It didn't say anything about what happened in Australia because ... in actual fact, none of this DID happen in Australia. We got away clean. Which is why, presumably, Lally Katz decided to write something else. You can't write a play about a drama that doesn't exist.

I'm intrigued to notice, though, that the one Australian writer who is writing about a topic of urgent attention and political moment is David Williamson, with his upcoming play about Rupert Murdoch (I'm simultaneously surprised nobody else has tried to write a play about him before, and surprised that Williamson thinks he'll be able to avoid an injunction for libel...) Sorta fascinating.

Intriguingly, the writer for Motherf**ker with the Hat has made known his issues with productions of his play that used Caucasian Actors instead of hispanic actors in the roles. Did the Workhouse use hispanic actors, or did they disrespect the author's stated intentions?

That Guy said...

Oh, and the article I'm referring to where Stephen Adley Gurgis raises this issue is at

Kevin Jackson said...

Thanks, 9 actors, still doesn't cover the numbers taking Australian actors jobs over at ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS or AUGUST:OSAGE COUNTY and THE HISTORY BOYS in Sydney, in their time. If you didn't import those actors you would have to employ some Australian actors to fill the repertoire holes. Australian artists, at least at work, developing their skills and been paid - a good thing even if they are simply doing pale imitations and/or duplicating or photostating other's creations.
By the way, not many people I know saw the NT broadcast of the show, and the cast in Australia is a completely different cast to the one broadcast.

To think that the International Financial Crisis has not affected yourself and this nation, is not to live in Sydney and realise the inflationary cost of living here, to now be the most expensive city to live in in the world, has not a cause and affect beyond these shores. Maybe part of the nation's budgetary crisis which is now beginning to be public as an election time arrives ,has something to do with a world picture of monetary pressures., caused by illegal, thouh foreign sources. I know that I am being directly affected by recent world events that reach back over years. Like you I would like to think that "we got clean away". Unlike you I am a little more cynical and nervous about it all than that.
I have no idea if my money is being wasted,at the subsidised companies, hand on heart, but I would like to be re-assured. I do not know many actors or other artists who have had the opportunity to have holiday pay or any of the benefits of constant employment etc.

Because most of the artists have to work to keep their skills and industry alive for no money, and have always done so beyond the 9 at the STC does not make it a good thing to be happening does it?

I wonder why both companies then, commissioned projects about a non-existent GFC? Strange. Makes you worry about the financial management doesn't it if they are commissioning frivilous ideas? Projects about a non-existent crisis. Hmmm. What a waste.

interesting that the STC did not take on the David Willliamson play, rather ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS into the subscription season is a better bet. I guess those Australian artists in the MTC from Mr Williamson down are a doubtful commodity to invest in in Sydney.

Maybe the Australian cast of MOTHERF**KER had permission from the writer, I don't know, do you? his representatives have given permission, it seems.

That Guy said...

A couple of points.

Part of the inflatiory pressures that have made Sydney more expensive than many other cities is BECAUSE we didn't have a financial collapse. The alternative is what happened in many American cities, with a collapse in the housing market and severe deflation in many countries.

It's weird that nearly every review I've seen of "One Man Two Govenors" compares it to the NT Live broadcast if, as you say, "not many people saw it".

There are obviously more than 9 artists employed at the STC - there are 9 actors in two different shows, but there's also australian directors, lighting designers, sound designers, set designers, constumers, prop makers, stage crew as well as two writers on those two shows. Or are these people not artists because they're not on view at the moment?

Also, given there are, of course, at least three other professional fully-paid companies I can think of around town apart from the STC (Belvoir, Ensemble and Griffin), plus professional productions of War Horse and The Addams Family playing elsewhere, all of which are ALSO paying actors, crew, costumers etc... you get the picture. There are rather more than 9 australian jobs out there.

Companies commission plays about contempoarary issues well before they are going to be performed. And the implications of the issue and what they're going to affect change with time. And the important thing is, again, they paid artists to go out and investigate and come back with what they found. They didn't reject it with "this does not meet with our requirements", they paid australian artists. You can't say on the one hand they're not supporting australian artists, and then say "They are and they're not cracking down on them when their muse leads them somewhere else".

You're right, the STC did not take on the Williamson play. Instead, they took on EIGHT other Australian plays for 2013. In the same time period, the MTC has taken on four. And is importing the same British actors rather than using Australian ones for "one Man Two Govs".

Tell me why the MTC model is superior.

Anonymous said...

could be that the major theatre companies won't touch the GFC or plays like Enron because they are sponsored by banks?

besides there's few playwrights or theatre-makers in Australia who have any understanding of business or macro-economics. anyone who's *established* in the industry has made their focus of study the performing arts, as is required to get anywhere, go straight to acting school, maybe an internship in a theatre, then work yourself to the bone in the unpaid sector.

Talented as they are I wouldn't trust most theatre-makers with a serious analysis of international politics either. (I studied it for five years and it almost destroyed me).

Anonymous said...

PS - that guy...

what is "genuinely Australian" please? i've no idea what that means.

That Guy said...

I admit the term "genuinely Australian" plays as a tad chauvanistic or nationalsitic... but ... okay, maybe a better term is "genuinely live theatre", as compared to "dead theatre", or "Deadly theatre". Theatre that is being done because it means something here, now, to this audience, not because it was a hit in the US or on Broadway. An example of the kind of thing I'm talking about might be the Sydney Theatre company of the early-mid-nineties, where such bland works as "The Sisters Rosenweig" or "Gift Of the Gorgon" took up stage space for no particularly good reason. They were productions with Australian actors, but they said nothing to an Australian Audience apart from "gosh, overseas writing is looking dodgy these days".