‘Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone; beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own’
It’s been a while since we last saw Kate Fleetwood on stage, appearing in the controversial «Bug» by Soho Theatre alongside the «War and Peace» star James Norton. Kate Fleetwood is a great actress with a long list of memorable roles, but it looks as if the portrayal of broken and confused characters is what she is exceptionally good at.
This year an American play ‘Ugly Lies the Bone’ by award-winning playwright Lindsey Ferrentino makes its UK debut at the National Theatre. The original play premiered in New York in 2015, starring Mamie Gummer (daughter of Meryl Streep), won ‘New York Times Critic’s Pick’ and played a sold-out run at Roundabout Theatre Company. Now it is transferred to London and Kate Fleetwood is the lead in the new production directed by Indhu Rubasingham. An eye-catching set design is created by Es Delvin, who previously designed the London Olympic Closing Ceremony and the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony.
Fleetwood plays Jess, an Afghan War vet whose body was badly burned by an IED on the final tours of duty. Jess returns to her normal life in a small now ghost town with foreclosed homes and lost jobs at the NASA’s shuttle lunch base on the Space Coast in Florida. Her family and friends are happy to see her and she is desperately trying to rebuild herself and make new bonds with people she left behind, including her ex.
Jess is in constant pain, her appearance is brutalized, she is full of self-pity and self-loathing, she hardly remembers how she used to be. Her doctor offers a virtual reality (VR) therapy that tricks patience’s mind into forgetting the pain and distracting from reality. Jess, sceptical at first, plunges into the paradisiacal world full of snow (hardly ever seen by Jess in real life) and beautiful simulations.
It’s a great production with a powerful cast, led by Kate Fleetwood with strong supporting acts by Olivia Darnley playing Jess’s sister, Kris Marshall’s as Kacie’s boyfriend and Ralf Little playing Jess’ ex.
The play doesn’t make viewers suffer together with the main character, instead, we are mostly shown her stronger side and a great sense of humour. We are given a very tender account of Jess’s struggle, the play feels a bit lightweight, which is great, as it focuses on other aspects of Jess’s life, making her not a victim but a fighter.
The play gives us lots to think about but never fully answers any questions. What were Jess’ motives to leave for the war and what was her experience like, what is the women’s role in the armed force, or what is the exact impact of the VR treatment on patients’ mental and physical state?
Still, it’s a spectacular and thoughtful 90-minute play about bravery, suffering, strength, relationships and personal struggle backed by great visual effects (by Luke Hall) and beautiful space-like decorations. Fleet virtuously showed awkwardness, pain, inner strength, and exhaustion of her being.
The final scene is very moving and is alone worth the whole play, leaving not only Jess, but us, the viewers, with a warm feeling of hope.