Virtual reality is one of those fascinating pieces of technology that still hasn’t quite fully found its footing yet, still feeling very much like a sci-fi fantasy. Recent shows like Black Mirror and The Nether have taken to attempting to incorporate it into a key part of their narrative, to varying degrees of success.
Lindsey Ferrentino’s Ugly Lies The Bone is the latest show to do just that, and in this case, presents VR as an experimental form of physiotherapy for protagonist Jess (Kate Fleetwood), a war vet who’s just returned to her small American beach town after finishing her third tour, leaving her utterly changed physically after suffering the casualties of war. Jess is left in the care of her ‘slightly overweight’ sister Kacie (Olivia Darnley), who’s recently gotten together with the dodgy Kelvin (Kris Marshall), who survives constantly being ‘in between jobs’. Along the way, Jess attempts to rekindle things with her ex-boyfriend Stevie (Ralf Little), who has since gotten married, and she mourns the loss of the past, contemplating her current predicament and the comforting escape of VR (organized by a disembodied voice by Buffy Davis).
Although initially faced with a slow start and somewhat stilted accents, Ugly Lies The Bone eventually manages to find its feet about midway through and brings out its themes of pain and trauma management for one’s self and those around them. Having Kacie as a carer has forced her to put her life on hold, and in a great outburst from actress Darnley, lets loose at Stevie, describing the intimate details of her caretaking process and accusing him of imbuing Jess with false hope. Jess herself has become a shell of her former self, and it shows in Fleetwood’s pained physicality, where every move she makes is a milestone. The simple act of changing clothes becomes an arduous one, and Fleetwood’s tiny groans and sharp intakes of breath as she struggles to shake off her trousers shows her at her most vulnerable; clad in a skin-tone top to hide her wounds and charred skin, yet fiercely determined to do something on her own power.
Jess is also not only physically hurt, but mentally so as well. The town she once knew has changed, a ghost town from the one she remembers as brimming with tourists come to see the NASA space shuttle launches and with stalls hawking tacky souvenirs. She’s determined to hate earnest Kelvin, even as he tries his best to make her readjustment back home perfect, and attempts to build herself up on the false hope of Stevie, which she knows in her heart of hearts won’t work out but tries anyway. Things have moved on and left Jess behind.
It’s no wonder then that Jess turns to VR as an escape from both her psychological and physical pain, where even watching the space shuttle launch is a trigger for her trauma. By engaging with the VR, Jess paints herself an imaginary world in a snow covered mountain, as far flung from her town as possible, but finds herself returning to her nostalgia constantly and continually wishing for things to go back to the way they were as opposed to running away.
Es Devlin’s set and Luke Halls’ video design is breathtaking to behold, resembling something like a hollowed out Death Star at first glance. The grey walls that curve up around the space, upon closer inspection, are adorned with house shaped potrusions, essentially a topographical map of Jess’ hometown. Tables, photo walls and entire convenience stores slide into view from the walls and ceilings, almost as if programmed into a digital world, while Jess’ vision as she steps into her virtual reality is projected onto the entire surface in glorious HD, giving it depth, gravity and total immersion and complete escapism.
Ugly Lies The Bone could well have segued into a Black Mirror-esque ending and warn us about the perils of technology, but instead chooses to remain a bit more ambiguous about Jess’ final fate. Director Indhu Rubasingham manages to draw out some genuinely moving moments from the script, which although awkward at times, manages to deliver some heart rending moments, particularly when Jess interacts with Stevie, a fierce determination and desperation in her for him to acknowledge what humanity is still left in her, and remind her of the physical beauty she used to possess. All in all, Ugly Lies The Bone may utilise VR in its narrative, and for great aesthetic effect, but ultimately is a story about real life and learning to let go of the things we hold closest to our hearts, and step out into a brave new world of possibilities.
Ugly Lies The Bone plays at the National Theatre till 6 June. Tickets available here
Photo Credit: Mark Douet