The four players of Marius von Mayenburg‘s The Ugly One strut onto the Tron Theatre stage to slick music, making the audience laugh within moments with their pouts and poses . The plot centres on Lette (Martin McCormick) who, after being told by his boss, colleagues and wife how ugly he is, decides his looks are ruining his life and that surgery is the only choice. When his new appearance is deemed beautiful by everyone around him, his life careers to new heights and, inevitably, ultimate lows.
The set is designed to look like a contemporary office space of minimalist art gallery; coupled with the actors’ pastel suits, the idea of uniformity is quickly established. The streamlined costumes also enable the actors to flit between roles with a simple change of hat or scarf. In addition, the clean staging allows us to focus on the quick-witted dialogue, a key feature of the play’s success. The conversations are absurdly comedic, even surreal, and each mad plot-turn is more bizarre than the last.
The central concern of it all becomes quickly apparent: the dichotomy of our relationship with aesthetic beauty. On one hand, we logically realise the triviality of it, but on the other are sculpted by society to be offended when our appearance is insulted. The madness of cosmetic surgery is brilliantly captured in Lette’s operation scene where a live camera feed is projected to the audience, accompanied by a hilariously exaggerated on-stage foley work.
The play does lose its punch a little in the middle. Although the actors are fantastic throughout and the laughs are almost always spot on, the relentlessness of the absurdism does become tiring. We even seem to shift almost to farce at some points and it starts to feel like Pinter meets panto. The central thematic points are successfully conveyed so early on there is a sense they’re being eked out just a little too long thereafter. Even the wacky sound effects and jingles begin losing their appeal in the second half.
However, when the mood shifts, we are hooked back in and as the play builds to a more catastrophic crescendo, new questions are raised. Appearance as a brand or commodity is explored and we are faced with an intersection of monetary and moral value as Lette’s new life in the spotlight has turned its back on him.
The Ugly One ultimately succeeds, using comedy both to entertain and to provoke. Marius von Mayenburg prods at our obsession with our looks and highlights the ironic loss of individuality that accompanies the strive for societally-agreed ideas of beauty.