Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone
Beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own
This saying, source unknown is a take on one from the 17th century and resonates today, in our image obsessed culture that parodies beauteous forms and decries anomalies however common.
A play by Lindsey Ferrentino currently running at the National Theatre takes the second line as its title and looks at the issue of image through the eyes of a female combat veteran recently returned to her small American home town from Afghanistan. This is the blurb
After three tours in Afghanistan, Jess finally returns to Florida. In a small town on the Space Coast, as the final shuttle is about to launch, Jess must confront her scars – and a home that may have changed even more than her.
Experimenting with a pioneering virtual reality therapy, she builds a breathtaking new world where she can escape her pain. There, she begins to restore her relationships, her life and, slowly, herself.
She’s been badly injured by an IED. She’s burnt beyond recognition save for her eyes. She’s traumatised in many ways. And she is suspicious of everyone, especially her sister’s hopeless and hapless new boyfriend.
This is a visceral performance that is painful to watch. The tensions never really erupt – they start then fizzle as if so much energy is both a waste and ultimately pointless. Characters are never quite what they seem, never quite as morally ambiguous as initially appear or as heroic as we want to think.
A significant part of the play is the ‘therapy’ the idea of experiencing life through virtual reality enabling someone to rebuild. But while this therapy is interesting, for me the core of the play lay in the damaged relationships that need rebuilding.
We soon understand that it is so much easier to deal in the superficial pleasantries, the desperate attempts to revert to the mean, to a semblance of normality rather than confront the painful truths of permanent scarring, physical and psychological that the veteran reveals in herself and brings out in others. To admit to shallowness is to look on the truth below and know it is real, it won;t just go away. It’s in the bones, or the people, of the society and in the hopes and fears for the future.
Potentially this is the theatre of despair but there’s a redemption of a sort in acknowledging what lies beneath and then finding a way of accommodating it in the lives that now have to be lived.
This is a one act play that makes you forget you have applauded the encore and the people next to you would be very grateful if you would stand and shuffle to the exits. It brings home, in neat ways how often we take for granted the superficiality of how we deal with personnel difficulties.
I listened to an interview with Sheryl Sandberg the COO of Facebook about dealing with the sudden loss of her husband, David. Of how she noticed people – friends, family, colleagues – asked her ‘how are you?’ once and then not again. It was as if they had fronted up to the difficult question and didn’t want to raise it again for fear of reminding the bereaved of their pain. As she said, she couldn’t be ‘reminded’ of it: it was with her 24/7 and it was THE topic of her life. Avoiding it, avoiding references to it, even if the intentions were worthy, merely drove it back underground and created a cosmetic cover, kept the ‘ugly’ buried.
This play addresses the same point from a different perspective. Seeing it, it will make me review how I address someone who has suffered misfortune and I will ask myself how that other is experiencing their loss, their hurt, their ‘ugly’ rather than tick a box and leave it to them to open up.
If you would like to see if then here is the link