Sunday 12 March 2017

Ugly Lies the Bone

Lyttelton, National Theatre.
11th March 2017, matinee

One of the reasons I loved Lindsey Ferrentino’s play – receiving its UK premiere after a short run at the Roundabout Theatre Company, New York, in 2015 – is because it confidently pinpoints a specific time and place, one that perhaps doesn’t directly relate to UK audiences. It’s sure of the story it wants to tell, and praise has to go to the National for what seems like a bold bit of programming.  But the play, its characters and themes, relate to wider issues and stories repeated all across America and here as well.

Florida, 2011. Jess, a soldier, has returned home after her third tour of Afghanistan with traumatic injuries. Nothing is the same: she’s in pain, she can’t get a job, and people treat and look at her differently. What’s more is that the world around her is changing. NASA’s shuttle programme is about to have its final launch bringing mass redundancy for its workers and the closure of many of its surrounding businesses. But Jess has the opportunity to use new virtual reality technology as a pain management tool; as the unseen and reassuring ‘Voice’ (Buffy Davis) behind the VR says, it can build her ‘the perfect world’. From what I’ve read of other reviews, most have said that the play seems thin material compared to the production and its design. It’s true that the play pushes the frontiers of what the National – and theatre! – can achieve in terms of technology. But the virtual reality used in Es Devlin’s design formally enhances the play’s interests in reality and illusion.

Devlin’s design and Indhu Rubasingham’s extraordinary production mixes the realism of cinema (and there’s something about the play which seems fit for the screen) with the uber-theatrical. The stage is a Florida skyline bending up into a semi bowl which, when unlit, looks moonlike. When lit, the night-time traffic of Titusville glows orange. At other times the sky is starlit. In the VR scenes, feathers and snow fill the stage. The ramped stage holds bits of furniture magically when not in use. The look and feel of the play is stunning. At one moment, Jess is in her VR world of snowy mountain-scapes, calming blue lakes and growing Christmas trees. At once it is strange and intangible, real for Jess but not quite real for us, beautiful but also somehow ‘other’. She comes crashing out of this world when the stage suddenly becomes the convenience store. Complete with a tacky Christmas tree (oh so different from the elegant pine trees of the VR world), shelves of Pringles and Reece’s bars and slushy machines, the design is now real and detailed.

There are battling ideas of reality and illusion in Ugly Lies the Bone. There is a moment when Jess absentmindedly suggests that paradise must have palm trees but it’s pointed out that there are palm trees on every street in Florida. What, then, is paradise? At another moment, Jess is disgusted by the idea of working in a Pizza Hut because she ‘wants a real job’. It’s also contradicting when Jess wants to build Titusville the way it used to be in VR form. There is a growing sense that (hinted at in Devlin’s design) the two worlds become blurred. However, no moment where reality is questioned is more moving than when Jess’ mum, suffering from dementia and having not seen her for years, instantly recognises her, not even blinking at the scars. It’s a problematic moment, not least because Davis plays both her mum and the ‘Voice’.

Kate Fleetwood is intensely captivating as Jess, aided by very detailed make up work. However, her performance is more than just her prosthetics. Physically, the amount of energy and precision is staggering. From conveying Jess’ stiff joints and spasming muscles to her difficulty at sitting down and her outbursts of anger, Fleetwood’s performance is all-consuming. Emotionally, she also suggests the character’s suffocation, as well as her frustration and confusion at how much her old life and home is disappearing.

There were bits over which I wasn’t quite sure. Short scenes moving locations make for a structure which is episodic, almost fractured, giving it a sharp pace. It also reflects the psychological effect of displacement. We’re hurtled about in this setting. There are lots of things to look at, bits we recognise along with bits which are stranger (again, harmonised in Devlin’s set), reflecting how the setting is the same but also different for Jess as well. However, the short scenes also make them feel underwritten and the technique that the last line of each scene is loaded with a bigger meaning became a laboured.

Olivia Darnley is impressive as Jess’ sister/carer, Kacie. Kris Marshall and Ralf Little also do excellent work. Marshall as Casey’s sap of a boyfriend, living on disability benefits, has been dressed in flip flops and bright colours. He looks like someone who might run the rollercoaster at a coastal theme park in an episode of Scooby Doo, a mere skate board and a cry of ‘Spring Break!’ away from becoming a Florida stereotype. However, Marshall invests in him something deeper and more dimensional.

Little, as Stevie, Jess’ old boyfriend, suggests a well-conveyed haplessness, insisting that he once had top clearance in his admin job at NASA but who is now resigned to wearing a hat with a springy space shuttle in his job at the gas station/ convenience store. It’s interesting how he notices how her eyes are still as charismatic as they used to be and sort of falls back in love with her. But, is that real or is it merely nostalgia, an escape from his unhappy marriage?

Actually, I think Marshall and Little are clever casting: the former is in his early forties and the latter in his late thirties, but both look younger and are mostly associated with younger and more comedic roles. Likewise, I got the impression that Kelvin and Stevie were older than they looked and initially acted.

Thinking about the casting even further, there is a sense with the four main characters that they’re all clinging onto their youth but are on the verge middle age. Memories of before Afghanistan pervade the play, whether it was Jess working as a teacher or watching the space shuttle launches from the roof. There’s a sense that these characters could have perhaps once existed in a coming-of-age type play. There is a parallel here to how Florida’s space coast was once vibrant and exciting but now almost extinct. There was an article in the New Yorker last year about Atlanta, Georgia, having a similar story with most of its once full casino complexes now empty. Overall though, Ugly Lies the Bone puts a female lead (Fleetwood) and three key creatives (Ferrentino, Devlin and Rubasingham) centre stage and the results with this production are very refreshing.

Ugly Lies the Bone plays at the National Theatre until 6th June.
Ralf Little and Kate Fleetwood. Credit: Mark Douet.

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