Moving beyond a small town and embarking on new adventures in the greater world forms the basis of numerous coming of age stories. Ugly Lies the Bone looks at how a big fish tries once again to resettle back into the small pond, bringing with it numerous acquired souvenirs that threaten to overflow the waterhole. How do you behave when you need the people you’ve transcended to act once again as your allies? Harder still, how do you achieve this when you’re at your most vulnerable?
Jess (Kate Fleetwood) has lived an extraordinary life working as a solider for three tours in Afghanistan, leaving her small town roots in Titusville, Florida for an unchartered life. She returns in 2011, the same year as the end of NASA’s shuttle programme. She’s been majorly injured in an IED attack, receiving skin grafts and countless surgeries. Attempting to imbed herself back into her former world, she brings the very clear scars of a temporary life lived away which cause much of the tension of Lindsey Ferrentino’s play. She’s physically marked by a horrific incident, but it’s also the knowledge that she’s trying to assimilate herself into an environment where she perhaps never belonged in the first place, which adds to her discomfort.
Indhu Rubasingham’s production in the Lyttelton marks the play’s European debut. Whilst there are distinct moments of Americanness, the play is fairly universal in its exploration of identity and displacement. Jess is the polar opposite of her bubbly, ‘sunny side up’ sister, Kacie (Olivia Darnley), whose new slacker boyfriend Kelvin (Kris Marshall) grinds Jess’s gears from the offset. Jess retreats to the company of former boyfriend Stevie (Ralf Little), whose clumsy greeting does little to aid her anxieties. She finds herself surrounded by well-meaning people who are ill equipped at helping her mend. To top it off, her cool demeanour doesn’t invite a warm reception, despite being justified.
A pioneering virtual reality therapy is used to attempt to rehabilitate Jess. It’s a real programme that exists to help treat soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies have shows than VR can provide effective pain relief, and, as illustrated in Rubasingham’s production, it’s no surprise why. The juxtaposition between Jess’s rigid physical state and the expansive world she is able to create using VR is breath-taking to watch. Luke Hall’s video design is a true spectacle and provides numerous moments of awe-inspiring visuals that lift the play. From epic scenes amid a mountaintop, to spiralling through space at frantic speed, it’s almost as if we are treated to an amusement park ride. The frenetic pace of the projection is the most buyout part of the otherwise fairly static production.
As far as Jess’ physicality is concerned, Fleetwood is something of a marvel. Jess nominates her pain rating to be an average of 8 out of 10, and this constant vexation is never unbelievable. Fleetwood’s joints are locked as she stiffly shuffles across the stage clasping onto a walking frame, attempting to minimise the amount her skin is stretched. The elongated manoeuvres are painful to observe and play against the epic chasm-like stage, almost engulfing her petite frame. The Lyttelton is sculpted like an enormous crater; Es Devlin’s set design is wondrous, allowing the VR elements to flourish as the projections bounce off the curved space and give an immersive feeling. It’s spectacular to observe.
Aside from the visuals and central performance, Ugly Lies the Bone is a frustrating production. More could be made of the Jess’s lack of mobility by having the other characters more lively, instead they mostly appear remarkably still. Whilst the actors gave strong and likeable performances, more could have been made of the impact these characters have on Jess’s fragile state. It’s a stunner to watch, but it feels as though there’s work to be done in creating a more substantial world for Jess to return home to.
Ugly Lies The Bone is on until 6th June 2017 at the National Theatre. Click here for more details.