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The devil reps pharma

By 5 March 2024April 15th, 2024Culture Etc, North&South

Culture Etc.

The devil reps pharma

Jarod Rawiri tells North & South about working on Auckland Theatre Company’s latest play, The Effect, written by Succession writer-producer Lucy Prebble.


By Theo Macdonald

Photos by Signý Björg.

In 1935, not long after German electronics-manufacturing company Telefunken released the first commercially available cathode-ray tube TV, art theorist Rudolf Arnheim wrote, “Television is a relative of the motorcar and the airplane: it is a means of cultural transportation.” 

Television takes us places. Actor Jarod Rawiri’s televisual life has transported him from the crime-ridden, linoleum-lined corridors of a hospital in Ferndale to the crime-ridden rural backroads of smalltown Brokenwood; from Waitangi in the early days of 1840 to a wrestling ring in pre-colonial Kauri Bay.   

But it’s not all bottle episodes and season finales. Alongside this on-screen existence Rawiri has mustered an impressive CV treading the boards, a distinct craft with a whole different set of demands and intimacies. He’s appeared in chic Silo Theatre productions, including as Tony Kushner’s iconic character Belize, and debuted with the Auckland Theatre Company in a 2022 staging of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night

This April, Rawiri is back on ATC’s Wynyard Quarter stage — what he calls the “Marvel Cinematic Universe of theatre” — for The Effect, a pharmaceutical-industry satire written by Succession writer-producer Lucy Prebble. The play takes place in a clinical trial for an experimental antidepressant. Zoë Robins and Jayden Daniels are Connie and Tristan, two young test subjects who fall sweatily, wildly, head over heels in love. Is their desire real? Or a chemical mirage?

Rawiri and Sara Wiseman play doctors Toby Sealey and Lorna James, the duo running this trial on behalf of a big-pharma megacorp. In the midst of Connie and Tristan’s blossoming romance, Toby and Lorna must confront their own sticky past. Jordan Luck (and a few million rugby fans) wonder why love makes us do the things we do. The Effect is more interested in understanding what causes love to spark in the first place.

Clockwise from top left: Jayden Daniels, Sara Wiseman, Jarod Rawiri and Zoë Robins.

Nestled in Auckland’s Balmoral, behind a KFC, ATC’s rehearsal space looks like a classic school gym, slip mats and all. It raises an important question: do actors have to do the beep test? 

When North & South arrives, Rawiri is chewing a muesli bar and studying his script. It’s the second week of rehearsals, and the assignment is to get in touch with the characters and build a connective tissue across the cast. 

Rawiri had never heard of the show when ATC shoulder-tapped him, but wanted to be involved immediately. This is partially because he’s an actor in New Zealand — “you’re always hustling for gigs as an actor in New Zealand” — but also, more importantly, because of the people involved. Since Toi Whakaari two decades ago, Rawiri has relished the close-knit intensity of working on a stage production for six weeks, building strong relationships over common goals in an intimate context.  

The Effect has been staged all over the world since 2012, most recently in a return to London’s National Theatre. Is it better for the cast to be aware of prior interpretations? Or treat the role as if it is fresh and clean, sealed in plastic? 

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For this production, director Benjamin Kilby-Henson encouraged his cast to watch a recording of the National Theatre production. The English staging demonstrates how a UK cast can interpret the script differently from a New Zealand cast, incorporating what is important where they are. Acting in a legacy show usually requires the actor to transform themselves into the character, whereas Prebble says she doesn’t want the actors to transform. “That’s a really beautiful thing about The Effect,” Rawiri says, “Lucy wants the character to meet the actor, and everything they bring to the role.”

Without giving too much away, Rawiri says the play “touches on a lot of things our society, and people in this time right now, could do with listening to”. The Effect’s setting has an immediate political context: an implied critique of pharmaceutical profiteering. Rawiri’s character, Dr Toby Sealey, is the company man who trusts big pharma’s often brutal commercial imperatives. Finding this character’s moral compass has meant getting into the heads of the thousands of scientists who work under disgraced employers like the Sackler family. “I had to try and understand what the good things are about big pharma,” he says. “Without this industry we wouldn’t have certain advanced medicine.” 

Of course, a show about a clinical drug trial means very different things post-Covid than when it was originally staged in 2012. Five years ago, names like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson could barely be read through the mud, following accusations of price-hiking, fraud and excessive lobbying. Two years later, these companies were being hailed as heroes of the Western world. 

Rawiri adds that, since the pandemic, taboos have also lifted around anxiety and mental health. “The whole world questioned what’s important, right? Everyone recognized that we’d gone through this big traumatic experience.” The Effect sits in that space: four people, sequestered away from wider society, trying to figure out what’s valuable to them and society.

Rawiri is affable and generous with his thoughts, albeit through a press-savvy shell. You sense sincerity when he talks about finding compassion for this character who stands in for so much harm and exploitation. “We know what the outliers are, the devil inside the pharmaceutical industry, so Toby has this dilemma: is it better to be part of it, to be inside the machine and effect change in that way, or stand against it?”

The play’s central ambiguity remains whether Connie and Tristan’s love comes from their souls or the drugs, a familiar quandary to anyone who’s done MDMA. Rawiri and Wiseman’s characters take opposing sides. Their challenge is to make a strong enough case to convince the other of their position. 

Rawiri won’t give away which side the coin lands on, but he does offer his own take on The Effect’s central question. Does love come from the head or the heart? “Well, my middle name is Te Manawanui, which means, in a literal sense, big heart. That’s my middle name. So, I’m always going to choose heart. Every time.”

The Effect is on at the ASB Waterfront Theatre stage from 16 April to 11 May. Tickets available at