The Effect: Nothing Out of Bounds

Lucy Prebble writes about what frightens her: online sex offenders, corporate abuses of power, and, most recently, the clinical dimensions of love. Part of this draw, she explains, is the thrill of tackling such inherently risky territory. But writing from a place of anxiety challenges her to grant humanity and complexity to these large, often taboo subjects and the people involved in them.

Prebble began her journey as a playwright the Royal Court’s Young Writers program, where she wrote The Sugar Syndrome (2003), which traced the online friendship between a convicted male pedophile and a teenage girl. Prebble won the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright for her debut play, as well as the TMA Award for Best New Play, and the Critics’ Circle Drama Award. She was 22 years old at the time.

Prebble’s work is shaped by her research process, which often takes longer than the writing itself. “The first thing I do is have an idea and assign it a drawer,” she says. “Everything I encounter that speaks to that idea, I put in the drawer. Much later, I start writing. This process can take years.”

This knack for confronting complex social issues in theatrically compelling modes took an economic spin in her next play. Enron (2009), which dramatizes the fall of the American energy giant, was a smash success when it premiered at the Chichester Festival before moving to the Royal Court.

Raised in Surrey, England—a city notably affected by the stock market boom of the late 1980s—Prebble had seen enough of the dangers of big business to pique her interest. Each of her immediate relatives worked in the business world: her brother and sister held positions with large consultancy firms, and her father led a multinational software company. For Enron, she says, she could explore the curiosities and dark spaces of an industry she’d long held in her peripheral vision.

“We don't have those kings and emperors any more, the stuff of traditional tragedy,” Prebble says, “but corporate CEOs are probably the closest we come to it. Making decisions that affect millions of lives, and they were often undone, as we have seen, by greed and worse.”

In The Effect (2012), her most recent work, Prebble turns her mind to the science of love. How much of human attraction is just neurochemistry at work, and how much is something more? The play centers on two volunteer participants—one male, one female— in a clinical trial for a new drug. The idea came to Prebble after a catastrophic drug trial at Northwick Park Hospital in 2006 left six volunteer subjects in stages of multiple organ failure. “I thought it would be interesting to write about love in that environment and dissect it properly—what it is biologically and chemically, and what implications that has for what it is socially,” she says.

It is no surprise that Prebble’s work leap deftly from one societal concern to another. Her philosophy is that there is nowhere a writer shouldn’t explore. “When I was younger, I was always trying to get into places I wasn't allowed,” she says. “I still hate to be told that somewhere is out of bounds.”

Jennifer Clements