In this current time of uncertainty amongst the arts world, it’s understandable that many regional theatres are dusting off the old trusty classics – it’s tricky to get through a day without seeing a billboard for one Shakespeare production or another at the moment, it seems. So it’s a laudable breath of fresh air to see Red Ladder weighing in with this unapologetically challenging slab of darkest dystopia.
Not “challenging” in the sense that it’s head-scratching, worthier-than-thou or particularly ‘difficult’, mind. No, Ugly is challenging in the literal sense that it takes you to task on your every perception of the piece, presenting a world of impossible moral choices which will likely resonate through your daily life for some time after.
This dystopia takes its cues from so many others beforehand – for a start, Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 can be spotted lurking conspicuously in the shadows throughout. But it’s the non-fictional references that are so profoundly affecting: those little snippets of human-wrought horror which slip so seamlessly from history tome or newspaper clipping into the nightmarish vision of this script’s setting. It’s never so far from the truth, which makes it all the more unsettling.
The action all takes place in a nearer-than-distant future. Apocalyptic occurrences (presumably climate change, though this is never explicit) have led to the human race reorganising itself into a caste system, from the elite Extra Super Specials through Specials, Non-Specs and Half-Specs to the wholly disenfranchised Zero Specs.
The characters are a flawed bunch, to say the least. Preening Extra Super Special university student Ben is all too aware of his superiority, though a revelation late on does reveal a little humanity. Special soldier Woody is smitten with Ben, although this narrative arc is far from the redemptive romance that convention might lead us to expect. This pair take their leave of the Special zone into the ghetto, where they are sold a batch of green “forget”, a drug which seems to provoke internal hallucinations of heady days long past. Their rapture soon fades to a kind of paralysis, and things aren’t looking good until Mrs M, a former home economics teacher banished from the Special zone, recognises them and takes them to her shabby flat before they are found.
Mrs M is an intriguing character, providing the play’s most upbeat moments and certainly provoking more laughs than any other. But her misplaced optimism is utterly heartbreaking, especially when this mask occasionally slips and she resorts to a desperate authoritarian teacher tone to try and regain control of her surroundings. She’s also our connection to the most profoundly affecting character, the Zero-Spec Mert. She is Zero-Spec for the simple reason that she is black, serving as a timely reminder of the human tendency to resort to base prejudice when times are hard.
The production is minimal but effective, with a multi-tasking four piece set from Sara Perks that reiterates the play’s timeless ambiguity and a nightmarish found sound design from Jaydev Mistry reinforcing the close feeling of paranoia throughout.
Relentlessly bleak and devastatingly funny, this play from the pen of Emma Adams never provides us with a redemptive glimmer of hope. But it does make us think damned hard about how we can ever avoid getting to such a place.