Quite why there’s a long article about NASA in the programme for this National Theatre production of Ugly Lies The Bone, a show that looks at how virtual reality can help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, only becomes clear in the course of the play’s narrative. The concept of virtual reality has been around for some time, and has indeed been explored before by the National Theatre, particularly in a 2016 production called wonder.land. That show did not particularly appeal to me personally, but it did at least give pause for thought about how much influence technology can have over people.
A space expedition launch of some description or other is the only properly earth-shattering thing that happens. It’s not so much that I’m wary of spoilers so much as the details about the said launch are, perhaps deliberately, scarce. The focus is kept on Jess (Kate Fleetwood) and the virtual reality aspect of her medical treatment. I couldn’t quite shirk off the thought that some good old-fashioned physiotherapy would have benefited her, but there was no mention of that, even as Jess’ sister Kacie (Olivia Darnley) went to some lengths to describe to Jess’ ex, Stevie (Ralf Little) the regimen of pills, creams and ointments required to allow Jess’ skin grafts the best chance of success.
The grafts were required following an injury sustained whilst on military operations overseas (again, the details are rather vague). When Jess finally peels off her face mask, I couldn’t help but think of the unmasking scene in The Phantom of the Opera. All things considered, I’m not entirely convinced Ugly Lies The Bone tells us anything appreciably novel. I suspect many people could reasonably deduce, irrespective of having seen this show, that the power of technology can be a force for good as well as destruction, so while of course something like virtual reality can assist with treating PTSD, as with all courses of treatment, it needs to be carefully handled and monitored.
The aim seems to be that, within certain parameters, the patient creates a sort of ‘paradise’ through their own imagination. They articulate what a perfect world would be like, and what I will call the counsellor, only referred to in the cast list as the Voice (Buffy Davis), uses video technology to create a version of what the patient described. Music has a part to play too – apparently playing something unpalatable to the patient helps divert brainpower away from the pain of their injuries. I wasn’t persuaded: it was a theory that smacked of playing Sesame Street tunes in Guantanamo Bay as a form of torture.
Jess, however, plays ball and gives it a good go. Later she reveals that her compliance was down to being in the military in the first place, where taking orders and acting on them, unquestioned and without delay, is the norm. While I liked the portrayal of everyday life continuing even as this form of medical treatment continues – the domestic disagreements between the characters are refreshing distractions, more so than the virtual reality scenes – I felt there were too many scene changes. Just as the audience is getting absorbed into a scene, it must snap out of it, and be transported elsewhere. Again. And again. And again.
The videos (Luke Halls) are excellent, bringing much to this production. The script is, to be brutally honest, nothing to write home about, and it is the delivery of the lines that draws out much wittiness, rather than the lines themselves. Thank goodness this excellent cast is able to extricate some (dark) humour out of what would otherwise have been a gloomy evening. The American Dream seems as relentlessly sought after as ever in this moderately intense and somewhat moving production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A new play which examines the use of virtual reality in treating soldiers experiencing PTSD, Ugly Lies the Bone by Lindsey Ferrentino makes its European premiere in the Lyttelton Theatre this week (press night Wednesday 1 March) ‘Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone; beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own.’
After three tours in Afghanistan and months in a severe burns unit, Jess (Kate Fleetwood) finally returns to Florida. In a small town on the Space Coast, as the final shuttle is about the launch, Jess must confront her scars, and a home that may have changed even more than her.
Experimenting with 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.
The full cast of UGLY LIES THE BONE is Kate Fleetwood (last seen at the NT in King Lear and in the feature film London Road), Ralf Little (BBC’s The Royle Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, recently in Dead Funny at the Vaudeville Theatre and making his NT debut), Kris Marshall (BBC’s My Family, Death In Paradise and the feature film Love Actually), Buffy Davis (BBC Radio 4’s The Archers) and Olivia Darnley who recently toured in Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night.
Ugly Lies the Bone
a new play by Lindsey Ferrentino
Running Time: 1 hour 35 mins no interval