Ugly Lies the Bone
By Lindsey Ferrentino
National Theatre – Lyttleton
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
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What's so odd about American playwright Lindsey Ferrentino's new play, which gets its UK premiere at the National Theatre, is that while it is singled out for Es Devlin's ambitious designs which try to replicate Virtual Reality, what make it work as a play are the old fashioned virtues of character and plot. If anything the technology limits a play that would be just as effective a fringe venue. Indeed this began life in a modest 62-seat venue off Broadway in 2015. The problem with the play is that at 90 minutes it is too thin. Fleshed out, or indeed made into the movie it's crying out to be, it would be totally captivating but it's the story that engages not VR at the theater.
Central to this problem is that, save giving everyone in the audience VR headsets (too expensive now, but will probably happen one day), the attempts to recreate the VR world in the two dimensions of the stage are quite flat. They end up being vaguely interesting visual projections but not the revolution promised. VR and the technology companies behind it are doing the hard sell here but theater can work its magic with just a room, a spotlight and a great actor – the audience's imagination supplies the rest.
The subject is a fascinating one – the medical uses of Virtual Reality on burns' survivors where much research has proven that VR is more effective than drugs in distracting patients from their daily chronic agony. As a theme this raises questions about nature of our experience of pain and of reality which are central too to how we relate to the theatrical experience itself.
Kate Fleetwood is deeply moving as Jess, a veteran of three tours of Afghanistan, who is now terribly disfigured and trying to put her old life back together again whilst juggling people's reactions to her, her chronic pain and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The litany of her care needs explained by her sister is shocking.
At a base in Titusville in the heart of Florida's Space Coast she is receiving cutting edge treatment which uses VR to manage her pain. A disembodied but sympathetic voice showers her with positive thinking while trying to draw her further into the VR ‘game'. We gradually learn that her emotional scars are as deep as her physical ones. She lives with her girly sister Kacie (Olivia Darnley) and endures Kacie's wily slacker of boyfriend, Kelvin, played with a dry wit by Kris Marshall – "I drive, I cook, I'm not on Viagra – I'm a catch". Eventually she bumps into her old flame, Stevie, who has a dead-end job in a gas station space memorabilia gift store. Ralf Little, in a deeply felt performance, embodies the sweet, gauche nature of Stevie and the mountain they both have to climb if they are to start over.
As in many war veteran stories, a central theme is the awful mundanity of everyday life after the daily adrenalin high of the battlefield. This is made worse because this part of Florida has been laid waste by the closure of the Space Shuttle programme. Ferrentino paints a vivid picture of these phoenix-like communities which spring to life every now and again depending on the vagaries of the Space Programme.
Es Devlin's velodrome-like set is a canvas onto which Luke Halls projects the replication of the VR world. This is a snowbound wilderness she inhabits but for some reason it is overlaid onto a huge aerial Google Earth-type image of the coastline and so the two are muddied. The opposite of immersion.CLICK HERE to read our interview with Lindsey Ferrentino in The American magazine