Review of Ugly Lies the Bone at the National Theatre
A play using Virtual Reality headsets may not immediately scream 'National Theatre crowd' but whilst the technology may be fresh up to date the themes of abandonment, hope and the chipping away at the American Dream remain timeless.
Kate Fleetwood is unmistakably brilliant as wounded war veteran Jess. Returning to her Cape Canaveral Florida home after three tours of Afghanistan (the third of which she volunteered for), leaving behind a boyfriend, sister and mother who is deteriorating from dementia, half of her body has been wounded in an attack. Every movement however small is a cause of great pain and Fleetwood manages to portray this chronic feeling of mental and physical torture so effectively that you wince alongside her with every movement and delight in her moments of relief that come through her exploration of the newly curated digital world.
Lindsey Ferrentino's drama handles an interesting and challenging idea but somehow doesn't quite manage to bring together the two elements into one solidly convincing and emotionally coherent message. Flitting between moments of the drudgery of real life and her artificially created escapist world ends up being too formulaic. We see Jess speaking to a somewhat evangelical voice who guides her through her virtual reality therapy but the structure feels clunky and disjointed. Too many themes are handled without congruence and director Indhu Rubasingham never maintains an overall sense of time so scenes bleed into each other and progress is made without us ever getting a handle on where we are. Relationships change from one scene to the next, and rather than grow alongside Jess in her journey we remain detached and scrambling for clues.
Set in 2011 as NASA dismantle their shuttle programme some of the most probing discussion comes at the loss of community and the hopelessness that those who Jess left behind continue to feel. Her ex-boyfriend now works at a gas station selling hot dogs and tacos, her sister has shacked up with a man-child benefits cheat who refuses to work himself owing to a trivial knee injury but is quick to offer Jess a phone job at his uncle's pizza joint which she rejects having 'been to college'. It's impossible in this context to not read into these forgotten areas of America and as Jess is challenged over her decision to voluntarily return to conflict she all but admits she preferred that to staying at home in a decaying space-side town.
Ferrentino handles this area of discussion adeptly, never pushing but always planting the relevant seeds but it frustratingly takes second place to her main preoccupation with virtual reality. I was delighted to be educated in the methods of using VR as treatment, the main premise being to overwhelm the brain and senses in order to reduce pain, but the education only goes so far and feels surface level. Using the unseen voice as our arbiter into this world we're only too aware of its limitations and Jess's inability to question and probe, which ultimately piques our interest but somehow raises more questions that it answers. Es Devlin's set allows the magic to happen but the play itself fails to assess, discuss or pass judgement on its virtues, ultimately feeling inconsequential and frustrating.
For all the technical achievements of the expansive dome-like set that absorbs Jess and creates a 3D perspective view of her world, I was personally drawn to the more intimate domestic settings which the vast Lyttelton space swallowed up. Voices became too shouty too quickly and for all the scenic wizardry I was compelled by the intricacies in Fleetwood's performance. Physically restricted she never over compensates with her voice, instead she offers a steady and heartbreaking performance of a character in crisis. Cynical, barbed and undeniably frustrated, she offers a first-rate performance that touches your heart, I just wish the text itself wasn't as restrained in its exploration.
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