Theatre Meets Virtual Reality:
Ugly Lies the Bone by Lindsey Ferrentino first premiered in New York in 2015, it is now making its UK debut at the National in the Lyttleton Theatre.
Jess (Kate Fleetwood) returns home to Florida, near Cape Canaveral, to a small town, which has been affected by closures at the NASA base. Veteran Jess was critically injured by an IED in Afghanistan on her third tour of duty and has spent months in a severe burns unit, she is in constant and crippling pain, and is irrevocably scarred and disfigured, she now has to learn to live with her pain and face the harsh realities of her debilitation along with her past. Kate Fleetwood’s spellbinding performance is beautifully observed and her painstaking attention to the physicality of a broken woman suffering from PTSD is palpable. But within her broken body lies a feisty soul.
At home is her sister Kacie played with the perfect bubbly demeanour by Olivia Darnley, who tries desperately to keep things positive, Jess loves her dearly but can’t tolerate her new boyfriend Kelvin’s rather brash upbeat approach (played with great panache by Kris Marshall). Her mum is suffering from dementia and living in a nursing home.
An important part of Jess’s journey of recovery is when she visits her ex-boyfriend Stevie, who has been laid off by Nasa and is now working at the local service station. Ralf Little’s humorous performance was quite brilliant; he oozed a goofy charm. Stevie has married and moved on in some respects, but there is history to his and Jess’s relationship, even though he struggles to deal with the enormity of Jess’s injuries, and tends to veer towards the tactless approach there is still a gentleness between them, which is very endearing. He invites Jess to watch the last space launch with him where we observe the intimacy of their relationship. Painfully Stevie sees one of Jess’s attacks of post-traumatic stress and is confronted head on with her fragility. ‘Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone; beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own.’
Theatre is forever breaking into new territories and more recently technology is at the forefront (The Nether and Wonderland for example) and this was no exception, it explores the extraordinarily brilliant use of technology within a set (cleverly designed by Es Devlin) that resembled a large hemispherical crater onto which is projected the virtual world that Jess inhabits as part of her pioneering VR pain relief rehabilitation program. I found Luke Halls video design rather beautiful and thoroughly engrossing. Indhu Rubasingham’s innovative production examines the use of VR as a medical tool specifically used for pain relief. It is reported that the use of VR in trials, at least 60% of patients experienced around a 30% reduction in pain. Morphine usually reduces pain by around 25% and is catastrophically addictive.
The danger perhaps with such state-of-the-art graphics in a theatrical environment is it takes away from the narrative and characterisation, however, I was told off by my teenage daughter for my old school views as she felt it was moving with the times and that it was important for theatre to embrace new technology.
The play moves between Jess’s two worlds, the humdrum of home life and that of a dazzling VR world where she is guided by a therapist’s voice (Buffy Davis), submerging herself into a virtual paradise of her own creating, allowing herself to move without restriction. It’s a fascinating concept to be able to move within a perfect virtual world, and the therapeutic benefits of the power of mind over body are very appealing. And perhaps it is this world that really captured my imagination whereas I felt the other areas were underexplored. However, with some strong performances and powerful visuals Ugly Lies the Bones is well worth a visit.
Ugly Lies the Bone now showing at the National’s Lyttleton Theatre until 6th June 2017.