Simon Paisley Day
Lette only realises he is ugly when he is overlooked at work to present the product he has developed. Told that his face is all wrong, that a face like his couldnt sell anything, he suddenly discovers that even his wife cant bear to look him in both eyes. But when, in desperation, he entrusts a surgeon to transform his face entirely, his beauty is so overwhelming that it brings not only wealth and women, but also much darker forces, to the fore.
In Marius von Mayenburgs The Ugly One – returning to the Royal Court having been staged in the Upstairs Theatre last year – the plot is never intended to be taken very seriously. Rather, it is a coat peg from which to hang the commentary on how contemporary society perceives and reacts to beauty, identity and fame. This is made clear in the way the play is both structured and staged. The set consists purely of three benches and a swivel chair, the bare stage and scaffolding remaining visible in the background. It is not intended to be a real space, and allows for instant scene changes by Lette simply swivelling his chair to face a different character on another bench. Not only are all the characters played by just four people, but several of them actually share the same name. So, for example, Frank McCusker plays both Karlmann, Lettes assistant, and Karlmann, the rich old ladys son!
Most importantly, the audience never see any alteration to a characters face after they have undergone plastic surgery. It is left to the way that the other characters perceive them to highlight the change that has taken place. In this way, Michael Gould proves an excellent choice for Lette, given that he really could pass for both quite handsome and slightly ugly. In each scene he uses his own sense of esteem to put himself across as one or the other, and the audience then exaggerate this in their own mind to picture what they are supposed to be seeing.
But the play has its faults. Too often Lette feels like the straight man, existing so that the other characters can return hilarious lines. This shows how Lette is caught up in a ludicrous world, but as a result he comes across as too cold and analytical himself. His own lack of emotion upon discovering that everyone has always thought him ugly feels very disappointing.
And if the plot is a coat peg from which to hang the commentary, it feels like a heavy Victorian coat stand to hold flimsy anoraks. The play is deep in its own way, but the profoundness has limits. It argues that modern society places outward appearance above substance and, in a role reversal, Lette finds himself marketing products he has not developed, and sidelining his assistant as he was once sidelined.
However, when others also take on Lettes face by flocking to the same surgeon, he loses everything. He can no longer command wealth since the plastic surgeon can use others to front his business, and he no longer has a career in research because he has spent all his time in marketing. All this reveals how society can take someone, reduce them to being just a pretty face, and then consequently discard the entire person when they grow tired of the face. It is not, however, anything that hasnt been said before.
Things do pick up towards the end. As Lette watches women who were formerly entranced with him, running after anyone who simply looks the same, he laments not being treated as an individual, and nearly commits suicide. He is saved, however, when Karlmann also adopts Lettes face and, in confronting him, allows Lette to see that he really is a marvel. The point is that Lette should not be putting himself in competition with others, but rather appreciate himself for the beautiful thing that he is. If others happen to be equally beautiful, then so much the better. Nevertheless, one suspects that egoism ultimately triumphs for neither character talks about how beautiful you are, but rather says Ive missed me and I cant live without me.
The play is concise, lasting just an hour. Half an hour longer than the episode of The Simpsons, ‘Simpson and Delilah’, in which Homer gains hair and consequently climbs the corporate ladder. Of course, The Ugly One is a more complex affair than this, but considering that its basic premise was established in a cartoon eighteen years ago, I am not sure how much further it has really advanced the debate.