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Debbie Hannan – The Ugly One

Debbie Hannan has lost her voice. Not theatrically, you understand, as anyone who has seen the Glasgow-born director’s work since she first appeared on the scene a few years ago will already know from her productions of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground Howard Barker’s Lot and His God in the Citizens Theatre’s Circle Studio.

Now comes her production of The Ugly One, German writer Marius von Mayenburg’s play, which opens at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow next week. By that time Hannan will have hopefully got her voice back after falling prey to an infection which has given both rehearsals and interviews an extra edge as she attempts to explain what is required for an already intense work.

Von Mayenburg’s play looks at what happens when a seemingly normal man called Lette is told that he can’t be the public face of his potentially life-changing new invention because he’s too ugly. Talked into having plastic surgery by his wife, Lette’s world is turned upside down when the operation is so successful that he is regarded as too beautiful for those around him to cope. Out of this comes a wild and fantastical fable of how beauty really is only skin deep

“I love that the style of it,” manages Hannan. “It tumbles fast and is unrelenting, in a recognisable but more direct and callous world than our own. The language is brilliant, short, sharp and direct. And thematically it grabs, then tears apart our twenty-first century obsession with our own faces with an aggressive wit and deft hand.
“It’s a secular fairy tale with a bit of a warning hidden under its dry humour. It’s a classic tale of hubris gone wrong. There’s a fall of Icarus shape to the story. We keep referencing modern rock stars who go too far and lose themselves, which is probably our twenty-first century version of Gods who get above themselves.”

Von Mayenburg’s work was last seen in Scotland when Thomas Ostermeier’s production of his 1997 break-out play, Fireface, was seen at the 1999 Edinburgh International Festival. In 2016, Ostermeier returned to EIF with a version of Richard III by Von Mayenburg. The Ugly One was first seen in Maja Zade’s English language translation in London more than a decade ago.

“I’m always interested in other contemporary playwriting and theatre cultures,” says Hannan, “and German in particular, for all its audacity, boldness and often quite a caustic intellectualism. They’re values that find their way into my work, though often with a fair bit of heart and fun too.

“We’ve spent a lot of time wrangling around the style of the play. Broadly put, it isn’t the kind of writing we’re used to, in that it isn’t built with psychological naturalism at its heart. So we’ve dug deep around what that demands of an acting process. Often the most counter-intuitive things have worked best.”

All of which seems to fit with Hannan’s penchant for extremes.

“I think I’m attracted to anarchy and chaos and structure in equal measure,” she says. “I definitely love things which bend and break the theatrical form. To me, it feels closer to what it is to experience the world than naturalism. I love plays that highlight how the way we’ve constructed how we live is just that - a construction – and underneath, it’s actually a free for all, if we can break apart the old ways and forge new ones, which I guess is inherently political.

“I love plays that take the strange or the othered and push it forward. It’s the reason I love new writing. I’ve got a bit of relentless drive towards dealing with that right now, with newness, with expressing the wildness of the present moment. I really want the vast expanse of humans and stories that are out in the world to end up on stage.”

Next up for Hannan is an Edinburgh Festival Fringe run of Anoushka Warden’s solo autobiographical account of losing her mum to a cult. Hannan is also hard at work on an adaptation of Jenni Fagan’s novel, The Panopticon for the National Theatre of Scotland. She will then see out the year directing Matilda Ibini’s play, Little Miss Burden, at the Bunker Theatre in London, where she is associate director.
In the meantime, The Ugly One remains an enticing prospect.

I think our production sits somewhere between music video, art installation and panto,” says Hannan. “The play itself is both unusual in form and heightened, but with very recognisable people and problems. I’d love for the audience to feel like they’ve been drawn, inevitably but surprisingly, down the rabbit hole of just how absurd our contemporary relationship to our own face has become. It’s now our first commodity, managed, tweaked, filled, plumped and sold.”

Matters of gender are significant here.

“It would be a very different story if Lette had been female,” says Hannan. “Women are used to this kind of gaze upon them and the surreal activities that can become normalised as part of the pursuit of some kind of myth of looking good, and worse, seeming good, which often translates as being smaller in various ways. The Ugly One places this pressure on a very normal man, and runs the logic to its extremes. It’s also a side-eyed look at consumerism and disposability.”

Hannan is aiming high.  

“It feels important to do this play right now,” she says, “because we’re sliding down a slippery slope of an absurd capitalist endgame, and it feels like if theatre can point at it, laugh at it, push it far enough till it breaks, then maybe we can break apart the walls we’ve built so far and make something else entirely.”

The Ugly One, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, July 4-20.

The Herald, June29th 2019



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