I swear: Griffin & Malthouse’s Ugly Mugs

There is nowhere to hide on the stage of Griffin’s Stables theatre, just as there is nowhere to really hide in the two banks of seats on either side of the diamond-stage. Like hands holding a shard of glass or a jewel, we are drawn into the story and world of the play whether we like it or not and you cannot help but be moved by it. Here, the stage is stripped back to its barest elements – bare black walls, rough asphalt floor – and is offset by a white plastic chair, nothing more or less, save for a metal trolley. It is brutal and unflinching, just like the play itself, and doesn’t apologise.

The play, Peta Brady’s Ugly Mugs – co-produced by Griffin and Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre – takes its name from the “grassroots pamphlet distributed by the Prostitute Collective of Victoria (now RHED) in 1986,” as a way for sex-workers to share information about clients, experiences and violence which were under-reported, and the lack of response to calls for support and protection by police and the law. ‘Mugs,’ simply are violent clients, and here we certainly discover a few of them. Herself an outreach worker for many years as well as an actor and playwright, Brady’s experiences give the play an immediacy, an honesty and a resounding punch in the face which says ‘for seventy minutes, just shut up and listen; we need to do something about this.’ While Brady and director Marion Potts are at pains to make it clear that no one person’s experiences have been used verbatim or as direct inspiration for the play’s action, Brady’s understanding and experiences of the conditions and circumstances faced by sex-workers (not just in Melbourne) is never abused, and it makes for a harrowing seventy minutes of theatre as we watch the story unfold. Told in an elliptical way, we are never quite sure where or when we are, but by the play’s end it makes it only all too clear; as to what has happened – is happening – the reality of it leaves me very angry and an emotional wreck, to think that one person is capable of doing that to another so carelessly and unthinkingly.
With Michael Hankin’s design (set and costumes) and Lucy Birkinshaw’s lighting, there is something clinical about Potts’ production, but it is not heart-less or empty; the very clinicalness allows the play to unfold with precision and unflinching impact, the reality of the situation exposed for all to see only too easily, and it works to the play’s – as much as the production’s – advantage. Lit by a bank of fluorescent lights and a faint pale blue light, it feels very much as if it is caught under floodlights, under streetlamps, their pale and sickly glow perfectly attuned to the half-seen and consciously-suppressed memories of the events in two of the characters’ recollections. Darrin Verhagen’s sound and composition hits us like a freight train at the very top of the show, a twisted crescendo of a scream, a brutal desperate plea for help, if only someone could hear it and recognise it. This is a production which doesn’t back down from its inyourface stance, though it does have a certain warmth to it in places and is told with grace, dexterity and brutal compassion.
The cast are all splendid, each delivering emotionally raw and honest performances which ground Brady’s play and Potts’ production on the streets where it started. Brady’s Working Girl is a bit of an optimist, trying to make an honest living; the moment when she asks what was done for her is heartbreaking, and we realise that events like these don’t get reported in newspapers or in news bulletins, and if they do, only the barest of essential details are mentioned, as if we are afraid of them, scared of them, scared to admit what has just happened. Brady’s performance as the boy’s Mum is fierce, desperately trying to get him to talk and to be honest, trying to make him do the right thing, tell the truth, and she tries, she really does try, to get him to sort it out in his head so he won’t go under.
Steve Le Marquand’s Doc is gentle and kind, matter-of-fact but not without compassion. His scenes with Brady are beautifully realised, albeit centred around the metal autopsy trolley, and there is something endearing about him. Le Marquand’s performance as the Mug on the hand is terrifying, and we see just how strong his presence is when towering over Harry Boland’s Son (figuratively and literally) in the blackness of the scene.
As the Son, Boland is a little bit clueless, a little bit desperate, unsure of how to act, what to say, how to be. His first scenes with the Footy Girl (Sara West) are charming if a little frightening, and we realise by the end of the play that maybe there is a way out for him if only he would talk to someone, if only he could get out of his head for a moment and sort it all out. West is beguiling, her Footy Girl both sweet and frightening almost at once, and it’s not hard to hear the desperation in her voice, the look in her eyes of a frightened girl who wants to go home is heartbreaking. As with her performance in Babyteeth two years ago, she nails the emotional truth, the rawness, of the character and breaks your heart.  
Ugly Mugs is (unfortunately) a necessary play, a play which has two bold theatre companies behind it to make sure its story is heard and noticed; a play which cannot be avoided or forgotten any time soon. As Lee Lewis is quoted in the program, “if [these two companies] can’t program this sort of work, who can?” It is about the people who fall through the cracks in society, the people who hide monsters inside them, people who are capable of anything, and it is terrifying to watch at times. “Did they have a march for me?” Brady asks at one point, early on in the play. “There a riot? Tools down. The big clock in town stop? Minute silence. Tears all round? I make the news? In the paper?” And we know that life continues, sometimes without so much as a backwards glance, and it is cruel. “A man is not a piece of fruit,” Arthur Miller wrote in Death of a Salesman. “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away.”
If this production can make us stop and take a long hard look at ourselves, or even a pause for thought, and make us start to change ourselves and our societal myopia, then it will have not been in vain.
See this.
And then we’ll see what happens.

Theatre playlist: 41. Tough Call, The Samphire Band

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