Review: The Ugly One
Marius von Mayenberg has taken the high-concept route from his native Germany to fame in continental theatreland, and a run of this cosmopolitan play at the Royal Court is credited with lining the UK up to fall next (as of now, he remains largely unknown in the US). New Venture should be saluted as making sure Brighton isn’t too far behind London.
Settling in my second row seat, I’ll come to realise performers are scattered along the first, sitting mock-expectantly. The set’s black-and-white minimalism preps for a similarly austere production. So, the lights narrow and businessmen take the stage. But when they abruptly kick into a high-energy exchange about a forthcoming conference – accommodation fantasias interspersed with resolutely unsexed-up instructions for a new industrial product – it’s obvious the lack of props functions more to clear the space for expansive physical acting.
A business-class designer learns he is considered too ugly to act as the face of the company, and the wife he turns to for support comforts him at length – without once looking at his face. There’s a lot of projection, a lot of larger than lifesize mime. I can happily enough confess this isn’t usually my thing because the performances here are so full-bodied and well-drilled I forget it for the duration of the show. Extensive doubling allows immediate shifts – characters sometimes morphing centre-stage via body language and delivery – and this in turn makes for a fluent, uninterrupted stream of interactions and illustrations.
Our homely-faced hero embarks on corrective cosmetic surgery so extensive it allows the surgeon a blank slate (and cheque) to create his ideal. The patient emerges beautiful – but unrecognisable. Thankfully, Mayenberg ducks sentimental, superficial reflections on the face transplant to chart instead the instant success it brings – in work and play. And if the previously humble drudge swells into a vainglorious monster thanks to the sudden attention surplus, it’s not hubris that will bring him down.
Although the production’s action is continuous, it’s helpful to dissect into two parts – with the former geared for laughs and the latter what might be described as conceptual farce. The surgeon who made-over the protagonist so totally now offers the exact same face to the open market – and customers swarm. Reasonably enough, this triggers a second existential crisis, but a much more uncommon one. The final arc forces our beautiful salaryman to confront the dissolution of his own identity again and again – “Most people would be happy if they looked like you,” he is told – and they soon are. “The others aren’t the real thing,” he protests, but faces checkmate: “Neither are you.”
It’s arguable the unfolding of the finale is less emotionally-affecting than the first because it departs from universals (although will resonate increasingly if body modification keeps on the way it’s going). Speaking only personally, engagement with the clamour of assorted fancy chickens coming home to roast was edged from front stage by my own daydreams of logical repercussions beyond the play – but just when I was expecting a dramatic ending that made logical sense but felt out of proportion, a last twist wraps the story up as smartly as a surgeon’s final stitch. I left with no closure but a head stinging with questions.
The Ugly One
New Venture Theatre