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What's love got to do with it?
LAST year, a New York Times article titled To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This went viral.
It referenced a 1997 study by psychologist Arthur Aron who had managed to make two strangers fall in love by making them ask each other 36 questions. They ranged from "When did you last sing to yourself?" to "How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?". The study found that when two people opened up to each other with courage and candour, Cupid had little choice but to shoot an arrow in their direction.
The study opened a can of worms. If falling in love could be engineered via a Q&A session, could the process be manipulated even further by having one swallow a pill? Could a pill activate different regions of the brain to simulate the experience of love? Could deep romantic love - which has for so long struck only lucky folk and eluded others - finally be the birthright of everyone?
Pangdemonium's new play The Effect written by Lucy Prebble explores the effect of medication on our deepest emotions. Directed by Tracie Pang, the play stars Nikki Muller and Linden Furnell as human guinea pigs in a drugs trial lab. They are taking an experimental anti-depressant that is boosting their dopamine levels. But at the same time, it's confusing their real feelings towards each other.
Furnell, an Australian actor-singer who's performed in many Singapore productions, says: "We often tend to attribute our feelings, impulses and desires to higher notions, a spiritual existence perhaps - but as our scientific understanding of the body grows, our perception of the human body as a kind of machine gains weight."
"All these intangible sensations and urges that we attach to love in the romantic sense are slowly being explained in terms of physical events in the brain. It's a fascinating concept to grasp ... because it raises other fascinating questions about consciousness where we attach this sense of self to 'somewhere between and behind the eyes', as Alan Watts put it."
Director Pang says The Effect is relevant as "Singapore becomes more and more of a pill-popping country. This play examines the ramifications of these drugs from psychological and practical perspectives."
Three years ago, Pang directed Next To Normal, a musical about bipolar disorder. It went on to sweep the top awards at the Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards, including Production of the Year.
Pang says: "When we were working on Next To Normal, we found that medication for mental health issues such as depression and bipolar disorder is such a controversial minefield. Psychiatric medication works for many people. But there are often drastic side-effects to deal with. Getting the absolute right dosage is a very thorny process of trial and error, and over-medication is sometimes a problem."
Muller herself has seen the destructive impact of psychopharmacology on people close to her. She says: "I'm personally wary of psychiatric drugs as I've seen first-hand how they can help and also seriously compromise someone's mental well-being. The numbers and research concerning the number of clinically depressed individuals around the world is astounding! But it does beg a very valid argument of whether we over-medicate and don't address the root of the problem."
But Pang insists that the play has a hopeful message, that "even as technology, social media and the stresses of modern life take their toll on each of us, making us more cynical and isolated, this play is a timely reminder that basic human contact, mutual care, community, and - yes - love, are the keys to keeping us humane and human... The Effect is what I call a modern love story because it examines notions of love in very thought-provoking ways."
- The Effect plays at the Victoria Theatre from Feb 25 to March 13 at 8pm, with 3pm weekend matinees. Tickets from S$35 at Sistic