Fractious Tash’s new production as part of Q’s Matchbox Season, The Effect, doesn’t quite translate the play’s complexities into a production, writes Sam Brooks.
On the face of it, Fractious Tash producing The Effect seems like an ideal match of company and play. Their previous productions, the tremendous Titus and the mixed-but-visually-stunning Not Psycho, have made big splashes, thanks to director Benjamin Henson’s approach of style-as-substance and tendency to shock the audience into a reaction, into a feeling, into an emotion. Meanwhile, Lucy Prebble’s The Effect has received rave reviews across the world, and it’s a febrile and taut piece of writing that tackles a generation’s reliance on medication and trust in the medical industry without examining our own humanity. However, there’s a gap between production and play that prevents either from being as successful as they really could.
As a piece of writing, The Effect is balanced to a fault. It’s a play about two patients, Connie and Tristan, who participate in a medical trial, a standard double-blind test, and what happens as their dosages are gradually and significantly increased. It also follows two doctors, Lorna and Toby, who run the trial, and their personal and professional dilemmas.
Prebble stays ambiguous with much of her material: whether the symptoms of things like love or depression actually matter, the morality of testing drugs when it means we’re actually testing people, choosing to live without potentially life-changing and life-saving medication. There’s value to this in a piece of writing, it prevents The Effect from ever becoming a polemic or a condemnation of anything, but it also needs a production either to take a stance on what its bringing up or to dive into those ambiguities more.
Fractious Tash splits the difference and ends up doing neither; it doesn’t make a choice about the material that Prebble brings up, but it doesn’t mine her ambiguities either. The eerie and haunting design, which makes the environment seem less like a testing environment and more like something out of a science fiction film, seems to lean towards an indictment of something, but it’s never clear what exactly it’s indicting, or more importantly, why.
This lack of stance pervades the entire production. Most crucially, the stakes in the primary relationship, between Connie (Jessie Lawrence) and Tristan (Daniel Watterson) are never raised enough for the audience to buy into it, at least not enough to be the bones for the play to hang on. There’s a mismatch in chemistry and also in the scale of performance: it feels like Lawrence is playing to a smaller space while Watterson is playing to a much larger one and a result it’s difficult to believe them existing in the same world.
This production, perhaps unintentionally, instead pivots around the character of Lorna (Sheena Irving), the conflicted doctor assigned to the trial. Lorna’s internal conflict and her clashes with each of the other characters are the most interesting in the play: this is where it gets into genuinely intellectually gritty material. Lorna feels like a human with emotions, viewpoints and feelings who is thrown up against the decidedly objective medical profession she’s supposed to be practicing, and Irving plays that struggle beautifully.
As the only character who interacts with all three other characters in the play, we’re always looking to Irving for her reaction and to what she’s feeling, and she layers her character with a humanity and an anxiety that’s compelling to watch. Even during a monologue later in the play, a clunky move by Prebble to turn theme into text, when the character has to break entirely, Irving stays committed to the character, her humanity and her flinty sense of humour. It’s a terrific performance and it gives a production a vital anchor.
As the other doctor, Toby, Will Wallace makes less of an impression, in what feels like a mismatch of casting and character. Wallace doesn’t convince as a doctor, let alone a doctor on the lecture circuit, and it makes it difficult to buy into his character and what he’s trying to sell us. The character should feel like an interloper into the isolated world of the play, but as played by Wallace he feels like an interloper into the production.
Where the production doesn’t falter is in the design. Fractious Tash shows have always had memorable and stunning design, from Titus’ post-apocalyptic playground to Not Psycho’s Alice in Wonderland-meets-Shortland Street medical examiner’s room, and The Effect continues that run with a collaborative design from Rachel Marlow, Brad Gledhill, Benjamin Henson and Jason Hodzelmans. It is staged in the round, giving us the necessary claustrophobia that a play like this needs, and both the lighting and sound (Te Aihe Butler and the Robin) create a sense of unease that runs throughout the whole two hours.
Movement director Lara Liew builds a beautiful language throughout the first half of the play, taking us between scenes with a fluidity and building the connective material in the relationships that we crucially need, but this language drops off in the second half of the play and it’s sorely missed. It’s a credit to Henson that the design feels as cohesive as it does, and it speaks to his ability to pull disparate elements into a production, and build on that. Even when the performances aren’t linking with the intent or the intensity of the play, the design is continually making us question: is this relationship because of the pills or is it genuine, or is there any difference?
Where the production seems to stand on the matter is that it doesn’t matter, or at least that’s the result of what we’re shown. Symptoms are symptoms, and they’re genuine regardless. That’s a valid point of view, but it rids the play of some of the complexity that is necessary for it to be engaging, and be effective. The Effect tackles big issues, and even one of these would be enough for an entire play to mine, and they’re issues with no easy answers.
When Lorna tries to convince Toby that her depression isn’t a disease, but a symptom of her life, it’s hard to disagree with her even though we’ve been told otherwise, in articles and maybe all our lives. It’s a moment where the production lives up to the high bar that the play sets for it, and we properly feel and even more importantly, understand, Lorna not as a character, but as a human being. She becomes a person who has lived a life, and lived a difficult life, and her understanding of depression and what it means to her actually means something to the play, this production and to us in the audience. This complexity is part of what makes The Effect such a powerful and provocative piece of writing, and the moments where this production meets that are unfortunately far and few between.
Fractious Tash doesn’t give us the answers to the questions Prebble asks, it would be illogical and dishonest to her work to do so, but it doesn’t honour the play by honouring the complexity of the questions it does actually ask. That complexity is there in flashes and moments, like in the Argento-inspired design and Irving’s performance, but too often Prebble’s work, and her ambiguity on the issues she presents, is missed and The Effect feels like less than it could be, especially given the high bar this company has set for themselves.
The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.