thoughts and frustrations on Melbourne theatre through bright young eyes

Review of The Ugly One, Royal Court Theatre

Debuted alongside the launch of the Royal Court’s 2007 international writer’s season, The Ugly One, by Marius von Mayenburg (and not directed by Benedict Andrews – would you believe?) received a two week remount in June this year in the Jerwood Downstairs Theatre, London. A world away from his darker and more dramatically experimental works, The Ugly One is a fifty-five minute farce and in the hands of Ramin Gray, it represents von Mayenburg at his most straightforward and simplistic. Unfortunately, it’s also his least exciting work, adding little to very well-trodden thematic terrain.

von Mayenburg seems to have confused economy with substance, because even with a script of less than an hour, he is relying on a wafer-thin premise: what if revolutionary surgery was developed suddenly giving us the ability to all become incredibly attractive? It’s a concept milked for every last gag when Lette (Michael Gould), who upon being told he is not marketable by his employer and confronted by his wife realises that he is terrifically ugly, decides to undergo the operation. The results are initially positive for Lette, receiving a promotion and being adored by his wife like never before, but as others decide to have the operation too, his world descends into a chaotic whirlwind of game playing, identity confusion and narcissism.

What von Mayenburg is attempting to say about the superficiality of physical beauty is probably best realised in Gray’s direction: clean, stripped back with no set, props or costumes, and with no actual physical transformations taking place in any of operations. In an especially nice touch, the stage manager is also seated in a small on stage box in clear view of the audience. While Gray gets some energetic and, at-times, funny performances from his cast, the play feels incredibly static in the space, imbuing all of its weight onto the text.

Unfortunately, there’s very little original, or really very interesting, in the body of The Ugly One; there’s nothing outside of that single premise. And while von Mayenburg’s championing of the importance of the inner self and individuality is never overtly political, antagonistic or too self-righteous, it still seems a little ironic considering that on the whole the play is, quite simply, just a bit bland.

Perhaps I’m the shallow one?

The Ugly One ran 10 – 28 June,


  Alison Croggon wrote @

Hi Chris – this is one thing I wish I had seen when I was in London. (But I did buy the text, at the Royal Court Bookshop). Which allows me to disagree with your summation, at least in part – I think this is a very fine play indeed! (It was written in 2007, btw, so it’s among his most recent work).

The seed premise is hardly science fiction – that “revolutionary surgery” drives an industry – there are all these people running around with Angelina Jolie’s nose and Jennifer Aniston’s chin. Among other things, it’s about contemporary narcissism, and the idea of indiividuality, how crucially our sense of uniqueness plays to our sense of self: the surgery leaves Lette looking (to us) exactly the same as he did before (the shifts between different characters with identical names, played by the same actors, and the fact that no change is observable after surgery is written into the text, it’s not a directorial decision, but a crucial dimension of the play itself). What changes is not Lette, but everyone else’s behaviour, and that changes who he is. And then he has all these supposed doubles. At least on the page, it’s a beautifully sustained theatrical metaphor, which goes rather deeper than satire. A gorgeous piece of writing, I think.

  theatargh wrote @

Hi Alison,

Thanks for the note regarding the play’s publication. For some reason I seemed to have remembered it mentioned in publicity material for Eldorado as being one of his earlier works, but I stand corrected. However, I still think it feels like a less mature Mayenburg.

I agree with your summation on what you think the play is about, and I think that it’s interesting, and to Mayenburg’s credit, that the no physical transformation and doubling are written into the script rather than independent dierctorial decisions.

However, this does little to change my opinion on the writing – I think that the metaphor is sustained, yes, but I don’t think that anything is done with it. From the moment Lette undergoes the surgery, the subtext and social commentary becomes painfully obvious, and the message becomes laboriously communicated through the ‘farce’. Like I said in the review, it’s a single idea play.

And what it comes down to with The Ugly One is that I have heard what it is saying so many times before. To be honest, I don’t know how much more can be said about celebrity culture, body obsession and contemporary bourgeois narcicissim without at least trying to be a little more brave. For me, the writing is not exciting or in any way challenging; it didn’t make me think, and it didn’t really make me laugh either.

I wonder if you would have liked it as much had you seen it in performance and not read it? A shame you missed it certainly, but perhaps Benedict and Michael will have something to say about that!

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