Rupert Goold and the company in rehearsal. Photo: Ellie Kurtz
Before rehearsals started for The Effect, there was some synchronicity between the themes explored within the play and current media coverage investigating the practices of big pharmaceutical companies. The play is described as a 'clinical love story' and centres around a romantic relationship, which develops during a drugs trial. It raises questions about the nature of love and depression, set against a backdrop of pharmacology and medicine.
On the Friday before rehearsals began, the Guardian published a controversial article by Ben Goldacre called ‘The drugs don't work: a modern medical scandal’. The article was related to his recently published book Bad Pharma and asked several provocative questions. How much do you and your doctor know about the drugs that you take? Can we trust the validity and efficacy of drugs trials themselves and of certain medication as treatment for particular conditions? This article was brought into rehearsals on the first day and often referred to during them.
The first week of rehearsals started with a full cast read-through of a brand new draft of the play. Rupert Goold, and Lucy Prebble explained that the first week or two of rehearsals would be spent sorting out the script, in order to reach a fixed draft that everyone is happy with.
A 'meet and greet' near the start of rehearsals, brought the full teams from Headlong Theatre and The National Theatre together. This was followed by a model box showing. The stage was going to be configured in the round, although the show had apparently originally been designed to be staged end-on. The design was relatively simplistic with a clinical tone, and had some very strong colour choices!
The company then went on to read and work through the script in manageable chunks, scene by scene. There was lots of scribbling by Rupert and Lucy throughout, and the reading of each section was always followed with time to go through the questions that each section raised for everyone - about the characters' backstories, relationships, location, time, facts, theatrical conventions and so on. These questions were not only asked, but always answered, often after much discussion. These conversations were also continued outside of the rehearsal room. They were carried on in the canteen at lunchtime, and out into the corridors of the building and beyond the end of each day.
There was some discussion in rehearsals about the television show Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial, which was shown that week. It followed volunteers as they took MDMA, the pure form of ecstasy, as part of a scientific study. It raised familiar and relevant questions about bias in trials and placebos. It was a fascinating programme, and another very welcome and entertaining coincidence!
The actors started to look at their character's journeys through the play, as well as questioning specific objectives and motivations within a scene. There were some requests from the actors, Billie Piper and Anastasia Hille, to arrange individual meetings to help with their character research, with a postgraduate Psychology student and a psychiatrist-turned-psychotherapist respectively. Jonjo O'Neill actually visited a London hospital at the end of the week, to take part in a neurological experiment looking at the brain and love, which involved having an fMRI scan himself! Visits into rehearsals from a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist and pharmacologist were also arranged for the following week. These experts would share their professional experience and help to give insight into certain issues raised within the play.
At this stage, everything felt very fluid and flexible, and open to change. Rupert, Lucy, and the actors walked through all the options and outcomes of certain character and plot decisions. Aspects of the characters and sections of the play were shaped on the floor as they went through the play. Every choice was fully considered, and always made with the logic, clarity, tone and totality of the play in mind. Some small re-writes were made by Lucy throughout the first week, with a new draft of the play due to be completed around the beginning of the second week.
One of the most apparent things from the first week of rehearsals was the thoroughness and rigorousness of this initial, dramaturgical stage. The discussions and process were wholly inclusive of everyone in the room. Although this period of work felt quite intense at times (there were certainly more bottles of Diet Pepsi on the table by end of the week!) it was a very exciting and invigorating process, and not without its jokes!
The floor in the rehearsal room has been marked-up with tape to show the layout of the set, as we will start to stage some of the scenes in the second week. As the play is set in the round, there will be a number of staging aspects to start thinking about. A dance session has been arranged with the choreographer Aletta Collins for Monday morning – bring on the second week!