First published in The Times, Tuesday July 9 2019
This is the first time Marius von Mayenburg’s 2007 satire has been seen on a Scottish stage but there is much in Debbie Hannan’s production that will be familiar to those with even a sketchy knowledge of the horror genre. The trope of slowly unwrapping bandages from some strangely altered face has been so endlessly sent-up that it surely deserves a subgenre classification of its own.
The actor performing the big reveal in this case is Martin McCormick, who is compelling in the role of Lette, an inventor. He is forced to (quite literally) take a long, hard look in the mirror when his boss (Helen Katamba) deems him too ugly to front the campaign to sell his revolutionary new plug system.
Pic: John Johnston
“No one’s ever told you?” asks his wife, Fanny (Sally Reid), while strenuously avoiding his Medusa-like gaze. A mortified Lette undergoes radical cosmetic surgery, emerging with a countenance so dazzling that he becomes an overnight star of corporate sales while fielding numerous sexual advances.
If the premise of von Mayenburg’s play radiates the pungent aroma of shaggy dog, its humour is equally on the nose. Maja Zade’s blunt translation offers up plenty of funny moments, which Hannan’s cast of four tackles with infectious enjoyment. McCormick, with his animated, expressive face, amusingly lampoons vacuous beauty. Reid and Michael Dylan are entertaining as a rich old woman and her son who set out to ensnare the comely inventor.
Pic: John Johnston
When Lette finds himself surrounded by lookalikes and falls into despond at his lack of uniqueness, it is Reid’s elderly magnate who sums up the play’s central dichotomy. “Stop wanting to be different,” she says. “It’s a lot more peaceful like this.” None of this is subtle, of course, and as the play advances through its 75-minutes’ running time, von Mayenburg’s ideas about the ways in which our looks inform our identities start to feel obvious and drawn out.
This sense is compounded by Hannan’s production, which is well choreographed and stylishly designed by Becky Minto, though its use of grotesque imagery and sound effects, including carving up and pulping of fruit during the surgery scenes undermines rather than enhances our unease. The best body horror, from The Invisible Man to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, instead recognises that the audience’s discomfort comes, not from yucky imagery, but from the quiet shiver of the imagination at what lies beneath the serene covering of a mask or bandages.