A little learning is a dangerous thing, wrote Alexander Pope, and those who have been misquoting his axiom for the last 300 years have proved him right.
These days we can blame the internet, where anyone can become an instant expert at the press of three buttons, and nowhere is this truer than in the field of medicine, and especially psychiatric medicine, where we throw around medical terms with gay abandon, sometimes without even knowing the difference between psychiatry and psychology.
Not that I’m accusing British dramatist Lucy Prebble of this. Her play about a medical trial that went badly wrong (which won the Critics Circle Award for best new play in London) and the writer, to my superficial understanding at least, seems to know what she was talking about, but the psychobabble left me way behind and (it had been a long hard week) only managed to send me to sleep.
This play, it seems to me, has bitten off more than it can chew. The premise is legitimate; drug trials, even voluntary ones, can go horribly wrong, especially if the participants don’t play by the rules. Loveable boofhead Tristan (Mark Leonard Winter) has signed up for a new trial to test a drug that will give instant happiness, solely to earn enough money to go off on a holiday in the South Pacific. He’s created a lifestyle out of this, and lines up happily to take his drug, in gradually increasing doses, every week.
The other participant we meet is Connie (Anna McGahan), an idealistic medical student, who believes she is contributing to medical knowledge, but is just a little too anxious to learn the theory behind the methodology. They, of course, are bound to meet and fall in some kind of love, because this is a love drama after all, and one of the basic questions is whether the head or the heart should rule.
Unbelievably these two manage to spend too much private time together, escaping to a deserted prison (now there’s a metaphor to conjure with!) and having wild exciting (or at least very noisy and physical) sex in their black undies, until they are discovered by the tautly disapproving administrator Dr James (Angie Milliken) who realises that this behaviour can potentially undermine the results. She tries to be cold and unapproachable, but she too is under pressure from her supervisor Toby (Eugene Gilfedder), who has some hold over her from a previous relationship. And so the thot plickens, until it becomes not just unbelievable but incomprehensible, and two of the four characters collapse into permanent mental breakdown and the audience realises that, if they’re going to take any message home from this convoluted plot, it is that you must never never never take drugs that weren’t prescribed for you, especially if you have hidden your dodgy mental state from your medical practitioner.
All of this could work if it were presented as warm human drama, but director Sarah Goodes has chosen to give us a production as cold and clinical as the dialogue. Just as the wide unfriendly set of the Bille Brown Studio is distilled into a huge box of reflecting tiles, so that there is no escape and every gesture is mirrored five times, so the characters are condensed into stereotypes of the cuddly happy-go-lucky, the eager-to-please student, the clinical medical administrator we all fear, and the jokey supervising trust-me-I’m-a-doctor we love to hate. We can’t care for any of them, because they are types rather than people, and they all talk in suspect medical jargon. We know so little about their personalities that we can look at them only as laboratory rats, and the overall impression is that the play is, just like the play within it, a giant experiment.
Characters reacting with each other in a plot that makes sense – this is a formula that can carry the most obscure theory if it manages to engage the audience. But two-and-a-half hours of it is just too long, especially if there is no rational or satisfactory resolution.
It’s the wrong play in the wrong venue for the wrong audience. Maybe, as a seminar piece for medical students, it might give them something to chew over, but for ordinary theatre-goers it’s just not interesting enough. Maybe it’s suggesting that love is all you need, but it’s the kind of self-sacrificing self-flagellating love that will yield no lasting satisfaction. If this is the only solution to medical mind games, then I want out.