JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE UGLY ONE at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 8.7.19.
4 stars ****
TOWARDS THE BACK of Becky Minto’s superb set for The Ugly One – a hyper-modern dream-turned-nightmare in acid pinks, greens and pale blues, against glaring white walls – a black conveyer belt rattles along, suggesting both an industrial process, and one of those game shows designed to taunt contestants with alluring parades of consumer goodies. It’s a visual image that provides a perfect context for Marius von Mayenburg’s 2007 comedy, a breathlessly fast-moving 75 minutes of post-millennial absurdism in which a man called Lette is abruptly informed, one day – by his capricious boss Scheffler – that he will not be leading the public presentation of a ground-breaking new electric plug he has invented, because he is simply too unbearably ugly.
Cue a series of ever-more-grotesque 21st century tropes and impostures, as poor Lette – brilliantly played throughout by Martin McCormack, with the same harmless face and baffled expression – mounts the conveyor belt to undergo experimental plastic surgery, and ends up with a face so handsome that he is constantly besieged by lustful admirers of both sexes, but then finds that his surgeon has decided to cash in by giving his gorgeous face to any customer who can afford it. In no time, poor Lette goes from bust to boom to bust, passing through an entertaining rock-star phase en route; while his long-suffering wife – played with equal brilliance by the inimitable Sally Reid – moves from affectionate tolerance of his hideous looks even though she cannot bear to look at him, through wild desire for the new handsome Lette, to a growing taste for adlterous liaisons with Lette lookalikes.
What emerges, in other words – from von Mayenburg’s brilliant text, as translated by the great Maja Zade, and from Debbie Hannan’s hilarious and pitch-perfect production – is a tremendous satire on the new age of the visual image we now inhabit, after humankind’s brief and productive flirtation with the written word; a world where we say that looks are only skin deep, but constantly act as if outward and inward beauty were the same thing. By the end of the drama, ever deeper questions are being asked about looks and identity, as if the borrowing of a face really does represent a complete replication of the self; and with Helen Katamba acting up a storm as both boss and surgeon, and Michael Dylan offering superbly satirical support as Lette’s scheming colleague Karlmann and others, The Ugly One races to a brilliantly ambiguous conclusion, for which the word thought-provoking is hardly strong enough.
Until 20 July