Ugly Lies the Bone.
The National Theatre
2 March 2017
This new play, by American playwright Lindsey Ferrentino, examines the use of virtual reality in treating soldiers with PTSD. The fascinating programme notes chart the success of using imaginary worlds to treat such conditions, discussing the case of the real soldier who was treated this way, and concluding that VR can provide effective pain relief- often better than medication. In the play, Jess, a badly wounded soldier returning home from Afghanistan, experiments with this pioneering therapy, and begins to restore her relationships and herself. It is a play that, overall, doesn’t live up to the promise contained in the science and some of the writing.
First the positives. The design is another triumph for Es Devlin, smoothing taking us from virtual reality to the home life in Florida lived by Jess, often effective in its simplicity, and treating our eyes to the virtual world. In the lead role of Jess, Kate Fleetwood is excellent, her movement suggests the constant pain she is in, she is made up to look deeply scarred, and she spasms regularly as her skin adapts to her bones. It is a mesmerising performance, and her relationship with the Voice, the kind of celestial scientist who creates the virtual world that Jess enters, is the core of the play. Jess says at one point that virtual world is where she begins to cope, it’s outside is the problem, and that is the problem of the play.
The other characters are a little two-dimensional, even though work hard to flesh them out. There is warmth between Jess and her sister Kacie, well played by Olivia Darnley, yet Kasie’s optimism needed to be tested further. The play has many laugh out loud moments, not least from Ralf Little as love interest Stevie, who was in a relationship with Jess before she went to war, and now struggles to cope with the new version of Jess. Kris Marshall is wasted in the role of Kelvin, Kasie’s boyfriend, a thankless role that provides laughs, but little to the narrative. The stakes could have been raised higher, everyone is so nice and understanding that we never get a strong sense of pressure and conflict within the relationships.
It is a play that does achieve a rare thing, in that is it feels both too long and too short at the same time. There are a few unnecessary early scenes, and when Jess reaches the end of the programme, she is told that she can always play it again, that she has completed the course, thereby diminishing the whole point of the play. (And isn’t the theatre virtual reality every night?) Yet the final scene introduces the sister’s mother, played by Buffy Davis, who is also the Voice. Worried that she will not recognise the damaged Jess, the girls are surprised when she takes it in her stride. Yet in the next line it transpires that she has dementia, and thinks her daughters are still children, having been dropped off at school. This notion of dementia as virtual reality felt like the beginning of another play, or at least another, stronger scene. Overall, despite a good cast and production values, the play doesn’t reach the heights it could have.