Friday, September 21, 2007

Ugly Beautiful (And Lessons In Excess)


The heavy-set man in front of me looked on the verge of expiring after climbing all the stairs up which you must climb in order to reach the Royal Court’s attic-y upstairs space. He had gone a worrying shade of puce, was sweating rather profusely and looking generally rather unwell – for a moment I really thought the show might be cancelled due to some kind of ‘shit, call an ambulance’ collapse situation. However he eventually recovered (and presumably took the lift on the way down) and his little episode was unconnected to the mysterious delay that bumped the start time of the play back by fifteen minutes.

I never did find out what that was about. But anyway. The play itself was Marius von Mayenburg's The Ugly One and it's a study in the strengths of keeping things concise, playing at just under an hour, with a staging stripped down to the bare essentials. There is no set as such, instead the stage has been left to resemble a bare rehearsal space, with only a couple of benches and an office chair. There are no real props or costumes and a ladder and a rail of clothes have been left, seemingly randomly, in the background. The actors were milling about in a corner chatting for some minutes before the play started. It's a basic approach - and one that is somewhat appropriate in a play that is all about surfaces and the power of the visual.

A man called Lette, a designer of plugs by trade, is told by his boss that he can’t go to a conference because, to put it plainly, he is too ugly. "You can't sell anything with that face," his boss casually informs him, a fact his wife seems only to happy to confirm, in her words his face is "disastrous." Though Lette had never considered himself ugly before now, indeed had never really given the matter much thought, he quickly decides to get the problem rectified surgically, to get a doctor to build him a whole new face. Once he has been un-uglified, Lette’s whole life changes. Women are throwing themselves at him and people start wanting to look like him, coveting his face itself.

The play touches on so many themes, notions of identity and attraction and the like, of the value that is placed on how a person looks over who they are. I like Michael Gould’s performance as Lette. In this most subtle of ways he conveyed a man changed, both enraptured and repelled by this ‘new’ him. I also enjoyed Mark Lockyer’s smooth, supercilious delivery – it seemed so in tune with the tone of the writing. The remaining roles are played by Frank McCusker and Amanda Drew, switching from character to character at rapid speed, indeed all the performances have a kind of cranked up intensity, and though von Mayenburg has chosen to give all the smaller roles the same names, it was never difficult to follow who was who. The satirical elements of the play where at times a bit too, I don’t know, overdone for my liking, but as an exercise in how much can be achieved with so little – and indeed how little you actually need to feed an audience, in terms of visual cues, for them to follow along – this was a truly exciting piece of theatre.

And despite the ample drinking time afforded by the early finish (even with the delay), I took the bus straight home after the show, still feel a little, um, delicate after ill advisedly consuming a rather large quantity of champagne the night before.

4 comments:

TRPW said...

When I went to this last week, I chose to sit in middle of the third row so that I was on the actors' eyeline. This meant that in the mirror sequence I had three of the cast staring right at me and saying that they looking at the most beautiful face ever.

Such a pity that I knew they were acting.

Anonymous said...

Never mind the stairs - why do the Royal Court play Radio 4 in their upstairs loos? It took me ages to work out why Eddie Mair was having a conversation with someone in the next cubicle...

Interval Drinks said...

Never had the pleasure of the Royal Court loos, I could see how that could be, er, disconcerting...

anna said...

This has to be one of the most satisfying things I've seen in the theatre this year - clever, concise, thought-provoking.