The Festival of Curiosity was founded with the aim of providing “unique, visual and interactive cultural experiences in Dublin that merge cutting-edge technology, design, arts and science in playful, immersive & curious ways.” While the abundance of adjectives prodded the skeptic in me, These Stupid Things does not stray from the theme.
The play follows two medical students falling in and out of love, and their relationship is punctuated with scattered lectures on the associated topic of psychological decision-making. It becomes clear that these lectures are an integral part of the story; in her new job as a deputy clinical director of a hospital, Penny (Rachel O’Byrne) becomes overwhelmed with the amount of medical malpractice occurring, which motivates her to tackle the problem at the source by educating students about the psychology of decision-making in order to help prevent rogue judgments in the medical field.
Even the angular layout of Smock Alley Theatre was in keeping with the play. It was perfectly suited to the geometric structure of the stage, which was reminiscent of graphs and protractors, making it immediately clear These Stupid Things isn’t simply a narrative, but a hypothesis. It proves that a fictional narrative can be told effectively and illuminated by the explanation of relevant psychological data interjected throughout, despite a few unfortunate errors along the way.
The questions pose dilemmas, either moral or practical, and the answers indicate one unifying point – that humans often act with little care for logic or rationale.
While the concept of an “interactive” play can seem more gimmicky than intriguing, the outcome is pleasantly surprising. Audience members are asked to lift signs from below their chairs and hold them up to have their say in a series of questions with “A or B” answers. The questions pose dilemmas, either moral or practical, and the answers indicate one unifying point – that humans often act with little care for logic or rationale.
Speaking to Trinity News, the writer of These Stupid Things, Hugh Travers, expanded on what drove him to create the play. Travers believes that his insertion of a tumultuous relationship into the “medical realm”, where he felt as though “the stakes for human error were highest”, enabled him to “make it emotionally engaging”. This blending of the clinical with the emotional is no easy feat, and Travers deemed it “mostly a tonal challenge” to draw the audience into the narrative while simultaneously reminding them of their reality.
While the scientific interjections are often enlightening, enabling both an understanding of the decisions that the characters make and how our own minds work, this device has its own pitfalls. The characterisation is somewhat sacrificed for the aim of the play; at times, the erudite jargon feels forced, and Penny and Leonard look more like pawns on a chessboard than real, three-dimensional people. In this way, the play succeeds as an experience more than it does as a narrative.
It perfectly illustrates the messiness of human agency, the abundance of contradictions embedded in any decision, and the conflict between rationality and humanity
At the beginning, Leonard (Ian Toner) jokes to Penny that she and her Trinity medical student tribe look down on him and his fellow UCD medical students. From then on, the stereotypes are only reinforced; the hyper-intelligent, highly-strung girlfriend, a self-professed defender of all things factual, stands in contrast with the “spoofer” she falls for, who is always chasing the next risk and never frets over a failed exam. While these stock types detract from the storytelling, they align perfectly with the scientific element of the play’s design; she is one side of the brain, and he is the other. This is not unsuccessful. It perfectly illustrates the messiness of human agency, the abundance of contradictions embedded in any decision, and the conflict between rationality and humanity, yet it can also make the characters feel like strangers, and the play itself more of a tagline than a tale of human experience. This struggle is easily obscured by the deft performances of actors Rachel O’Byrne and Ian Toner; at one point Toner’s monologue made Smock Alley so quiet that the only sound left was my friend sobbing next to me.
Although the straddling of fact and fiction makes it difficult to become fully immersed in one or the other, the result is refreshing, fascinating, and guaranteed to have a lasting effect on every member of the audience. And if you are wondering whether or not you’ll get a chance to see it, fear not, because Travers has “plans and hopes and everything in between to bring this one back”.