Red Ladder Theatre Company’s Ugly at Jacksons Lane
A cleverly marketed play about the effects of climate change, Red Ladder’s Ugly is currently on a small-scale tour of the country. Set in a dystopian shell of the world we know, people are divided into ‘specials’ and ‘non-specs’. It’s initially quite hard to orientate ourselves in this post-apocalyptic computer game of a play, and its symbolic code takes a few scenes to slot into place. Once it does, we start to glimpse some of the convictions that drive Emma Adams’ writing.
Ugly, its seems, seeks to shock its audience into realising the dreadful truth: that we’re using the planet in an irresponsible way and that we need to stop. Only it’s not very shocking; some scenes are certainly not pleasant, involving stabbing and foot slicing, but they’re not enough to really make us squirm.
Shock and other visceral reactions rely on two things: that we care about the characters involved, and that our sensibilities are delicate enough to be effected by them. Although the characters in Ugly may be interesting, we don’t really care about them. Distanced from the real, they’re also initially quite unknowable – not helped by the lengthy time it takes for us to be able to locate ourselves and to really know what’s going on. What’s needed is some more signposting. Though no audience wants to be confronted by preachy political tract, we do need to know what it is we’re watching.
As was touched on in the post-show discussion, a promenade or interactive performance would be more suited to this text. I was also surprised by the small size of the cast; in order to have the kind of impact it hopes for, Ugly needs to physically intimidate its audience with the overwhelming presence of autocratic security guards. As it is, most of the gun shots we hear come out of nowhere. Though the anonymous source of the firearms could be terrifying, in this instance its power is dissipated.
Real shock is hard to achieve at the best of times: there is a definite expiry date for in-yer-face theatre. Once a baby has been stoned to death on stage, we become desensitised to this as a shock tactic. Next time, the baby has to be killed and then eaten. This is the problem I have with Avenue Q: it relies on taboos that have already expired. Not unless you’re 15 do you find repeating the word ‘porn’ hilarious.
Ugly has a fresh central vocabulary and explores some harrowing concepts: ‘illegal memories’ and the description of sex as a ‘waste of moisture’ are certainly memorable and thought-provoking. The harrowing themes at its heart now need to be mirrored in a harrowing style of presentation.