Writer: Marius Von Mayenburg translated by Maja Zade
Director: Natalie Simone
Renowned German writer Marius Von Mayenburg’s latest work Nachtland receives its UK premier at the Young Vic early next year, so now may seem as good a time as any for a revival of his 2007 Royal Court hit The Ugly One. Unfortunately, despite snappy direction from Natalie Simone and solid performances from a quartet of Bristol Old Vic graduates, this absurdist satire feels strangely dated.
Industrial designer Lette (Christopher Williams) creates the revolutionary 2CK high voltage connector, but his desire to unveil it to the world is thwarted by boss Scheffler (Sumāh Ebelé) who tells him “Your face is unacceptable”. “Yes” says Lette’s wife Fanny (Kate Cartwright), who can only bear to look him in his left eye, “you are unspeakably ugly”. Having lost out to colleague Karlmann (Kerr Louden) in the presentation stakes, Lette takes himself to a plastic surgeon who transforms the grotesque ogre into an angelic Adonis.
“My art has changed your life” the surgeon tells Lette, whose sexual allure soon attracts a hareem of 25 women, not to mention the lascivious attention of a geriatric business tycoon and her permanently priapic son. None of them loves Lette quite as much as he now loves himself. But doom beckons when the surgeon repeats the same trick with dozens of other men. In a world filled with people who all look the same, what price individual identity?
Williams makes a decent fist of tracking Lette’s journey from dowdy office jobsworth to purple-boa flapping rock-star dandy, to the character’s final descent into Lear-like narcissistic madness. Louden’s ambitious Karlmann convinces, but the actor struggles to find the right tone as the tycoon’s leering son; there is rather too much of a camp ‘70s sitcom gay caricature here. Ebelé’s deeply amoral Scheffler transmits the show’s anti-capitalist message: human capital is essentially substitutable so if your face does not fit, you are gone. Cartwright has a talent for medical foley effects in the surgery scene and delivers some nifty accompaniment to Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights.
Vyshnavi Krishnan’s set, a cross between a photo studio and style show runway, brings a feel of the transient nature of fashion and physical beauty. Simone directs at the pace of an express train, injecting comic references to Frankenstein and using frantic rave-dance sequences to signpost narrative milestones.
The Ugly One predates Instagram, X (formerly Twitter), the rise of identity politics, the celebration of ‘diversity’, and the ubiquity of the hugely individualistic ‘personal branding’ business. In this light, Von Mayenburg’s core theme – the pitfalls of Lette’s Faustian pact to sacrifice his unique identity in exchange for material and sexual excess – feels strangely passé. Our culture’s determination to identify and celebrate what sets us apart from each other seems more of a potential threat, in a caustic, fractured and bitter 2023, than our obsession with external beauty.
Runs until 23 September 2023