Royal Court Theatre, June 2008
Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog
The Ugly One is a play about outward appearances, and this production at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs deliberately pays no attention at all to its own outward appearance. Every visual element, from the design to the performances, has been pared down to the absolute minimum, leaving a skeleton supported only by the words of playwright Marius von Mayenburg (via translator Maja Zade).
It’s a dangerous directorial decision. The stage is left knee-deep in day-to-day theatre clutter – half-built scaffolding towers, power tools and stacks of gaffer tape – with a small performance space marked out using electrical tape. The cast lounge on grubby waiting-room benches, forsaking visual business almost entirely: when asked, “What are you doing?” Simon Paisley Day deadpans, “I’m peeling fruit,” his hands clasped motionless in his lap.
Theatre being an essentially visual medium, all this suggests a play completely lacking in theatricality or anything capable of holding an audience’s interest. Director Ramin Gray has put all his faith in von Mayenburg’s (or Zade’s) script to colour in his pencil-sketch production. It’s a gamble, and it pays off. The interesting theatrical clutter in the background might threaten to pull focus from the generally static performance, but the dialogue is rapid-fire and non-stop; get distracted by a cordless drill and you’ll miss a whole scene. Mayenburg’s comedy thrives on the kind of deadpan delivery around which Gray has built his production.
All the performers bar Michael Gould (Lette, the titular Ugly One) play multiple roles, and this is where Gray crosses the line and places his concept above theatricality. Stripped of visual performance elements there’s little to differentiate between each performer’s various characters.
In places this adds to the comedy. It’s funny to discover halfway through a conversation that Lette is speaking not to his wife but to his mistress (both Amanda Drew). It also resonates with the play’s themes of conformity. Pressured by society’s concept of beauty, ugly Lette resorts to cosmetic surgery; his impossibly handsome new face becomes a benchmark of attractiveness, and soon every fashionable man in the world is wearing the same face. Our confusion at being unable to differentiate between wife and mistress gives an insight into the mistress’ confusion at being unable to differentiate between Lette, Christian the pianist and her son Karlmann (Frank McCusker). But people don’t start wearing Lette’s face until halfway through, so for half an hour the lack of differentiation is a purely comic device, and the script doesn’t always oblige the relevant scenes with comic dialogue. In these instances, when it’s near impossible to tell Paisley Day’s plastic surgeon from his office boss character, the device is merely confusing or distracting.
The Ugly One delights in treading a fine line between deliberate understatement and a lack of theatricality, and while it reaches reaches the other side standing confidently upright, it isn’t without a few worrying wobbles in the wrong direction.
Written by Marius von Mayenburg (translated by Maja Zade)
Crew includes Ramin Gray (director), Jeremy Herbert (designer), Charles Balfour (lighting) and Nick Powell (sound)
Cast includes Amanda Drew, Michael Gould, Frank McCusker and Simon Paisley Day
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