FringeReview UK 2016
After Lette had undergone the plastic surgery operation, his face looked like a classical Greek head of Apollo.
The audience member on my right, though, probably saw him as James Bond played by Daniel Craig, while to the woman in the row behind he might have been George Clooney.
In actual fact, of course, Lette’s face remained that of Robert Cohen, the actor playing him – but we had seen the surgery, watched the reactions of the other actors to Lette’s new, unbelievably handsome appearance, and so we each projected our own ideal face onto the actor’s (unchanged) features.
That’s the essence of Minimalism in theatre – you do away with anything that isn’t absolutely essential, all the finicky details that distract from the story in so many theatre productions, and you let the audience do the work, creating the scene for themselves in their heads. Treating them as adults.
There’s a huge bonus to this grown-up approach – vast amounts of money could be spent on creating a highly detailed operating theatre where Lette’s spectacularly ugly face is transformed, but it still wouldn’t look … quite right. It wouldn’t match my idea of the location – not to mention that of the woman in the row behind.
But – by simply having Lette slumped back in a chair facing away from the audience, with the surgeon making hand movements across his face, and the nurse handing him surgical instruments in mime, we could SEE the operation in all its detail – the glitter of the steel scalpels, the harsh lights and green cloth, the clinicians’ gowns – as clear in our minds as if they were actually there in front of us. Our own individual conceptions of that environment – and each of them … perfect.
To do this successfully, though, you have to have total command of the material. It’s like performing on a high-wire with no safety net. Lauren Varnfield carries it off brilliantly in her direction of this production of ‘The Ugly One’, and she’s supported by four actors of consummate skill. We were gripped – mesmerised – from start to finish.
Black. Imagine the theatre space at The Rialto – black walls and ceiling, black stage, and four actors, all dressed solely in black. Three men in black shirts and trousers, and a slim woman in black shirt and a calf-length black leather skirt. These four act out the tale of Lette, a designer of high-voltage electrical equipment, who is a beautiful person on the inside, but whose external appearance is – ugly.
It’s not just the locations that we have to imagine in this play. Marius von Mayenburg’s writing specifies just four actors to play eight characters, with only Robert Cohen remaining as Lette – and he of course changes his face. So Kitty Newbury gives us Lette’s wife Fanny, who loves him deeply. Well, actually she loves the inner person, the Lette inside his body, it’s just that she can’t bear to look at his face – for years she’s looked only at his left eye …
Scheffler is Lette’s boss at the equipment company. Tom Dussek is a big man, and he plays Scheffler as the arch-capitalist, self-satisfied and self-important. Lette is the designer of the firm’s new product, so he should get the recognition at a big conference – but his ugly face will damage sales prospects, so with a total lack of loyalty and humanity Scheffler sidelines the designer in favour of his assistant. He’s finally honest enough, though, to tell Lette about his disastrous physiognomy.
So Lette decides to have plastic surgery to improve his appearance and bolster his career prospects – see how this play comments on contemporary society. Newbury morphs into the surgeon’s assistant, another Fanny, in the operating theatre scene I’ve mentioned earlier. No changes of clothing or props – the woman simply alters her speech pattern and her posture, and we see her transformation into a different person right in front of our eyes.
The plastic surgeon is – you guessed it – another Scheffler. Dussek swaps self-satisfied for self-confident for the role of Scheffler the doctor. The actor seems to fill the stage, dominating the space with expansive arm gestures and booming voice, belittling Lette’s present appearance and promising vast improvement – “though anything would be better than what you have at present”.
So the surgery takes place, and Lette’s face is transformed. So is his career. With his newly wonderful appearance he is of course sent to the conference – we all know that people buy the image, not the substance, of any product. And not just Lette’s career, either. With his new face, his sexual allure is irresistible, not just to dozens of women at sales meetings who want to bed their idol, but also to the owner of the company’s major client, the seventy-year-old … Fanny.
So Kitty Newbury gives us a third Fanny, old – though she too has had extensive plastic surgery – and sexually voracious. More amazing transformations – to watch Newbury, as the younger Fanny, walk down the aisle between the audience seating, angrily indignant at her husband Lette’s erotic adventures, and then seconds later to see her return as the older Fanny, rather stiffer in her walking and ever so slightly stooped, comparing her lover Lette to her previous husbands, was a great moment of theatre.
The older Fanny has a son, Karlmann. He’s a neurotic, totally emasculated by his dominating mother. Jonathan Howlett played him as a cringing wimp, screwing up his body and hunching his shoulders as he whined about how unfair his life was. Totally different from Howlett’s brash portrayal of Lette’s ambitious assistant, who wants to take over his position in the company, and is called (of course) Karlmann. Finally, Karlmann (the assistant, not the son) has the same surgical treatment as Lette, giving him exactly the same face – and the same sexual allure. He becomes the lover of Lette’s wife Fanny – although sometimes Fanny isn’t sure whether it’s her husband or her lover she’s with.
In fact, Scheffler (the surgeon) is performing the same operation on many men – the world is filling up with Lette lookalikes. No-one is sure any more just who is who. Marius von Mayenburg’s script kept us on our toes as we navigated the twists and transformations of his amazing plot.
A brilliant farce, hilarious and fast-moving like all good farce, but also a very pointed morality play. When Lette is ugly, he’s beautiful inside – after becoming irresistible, he turns into a complete bastard. We had to imagine Lette’s new face, but Robert Cohen handled his emotional transformation over the course of the play with great subtlety. As he gradually made his voice become harder, and straightened his body posture scene by scene, the actor developed from a damaged, insecure individual to become a monster, totally given up to the pursuit of sexual conquest and money. This play is about our culture’s obsession with beauty and with success, and how easily we abandon any empathy with our fellow human beings as we chase those goals. If Simon Cowell was a made-up character, Marius von Mayenburg would have been the one to write him.
Lauren Varnfields’s production of ‘The Ugly One’ is a truly outstanding achievement. A clever script, intelligent staging and, most of all, great ensemble playing by four really talented actors.