For those who don’t know what “ugly mugs” are (and until last night, I did not), the term refers to clients who are dangerous and abusive to sex workers. Sex worker organisations throughout Australia maintain their own “ugly mugs” lists, which contain details of those clients, their physical traits and exactly what they do to workers. They distribute these lists to workers in pamphlet form.
Such a pamphlet was the inspiration for Peta Brady’s latest play, which explores, in confronting and gritty detail, much of what our society often chooses to ignore. It’s not just the realities of sex work on our streets, but the forceful truth of our thoughts and the capability of individuals to carry out horrific acts.
The play begins in a morgue where a murdered sex worker (Brady) is being examined by a forensic scientist (Steve Le Marquand), about to perform a post-mortem. She’s not just the body on the slab that sex workers are so often reduced to on television and in film. She’s conscious, and speaks the scientist through her life on the streets with humour and determination, as he talks her through the post-mortem.
Brady doesn’t give the sex worker at the centre a name, but she gives her a finely sketched character. She’s not exactly “tainted” in the way we’d choose to believe most sex workers are; her life is rich and although she’s found a way to cope with the ugly side of her life, she’s living her life, rather than just surviving it. The scientist goes about his dreary task with professionalism, but is rocked when he discovers the ugly mugs pamphlet tucked into her boot, revealing stories that are truly shocking.
At the same time, a teenage boy (Harry Borland) has landed himself in a prison cell after an encounter with a girl (Sara West) in a park. He goes over his actions in his head time and again to try to understand why his thoughts led him to the actions he took, constantly wanting to rewind and choose a different course. It’s certainly not his fault that the girl suffered the fate she did, but there’s blame he has to share.
All of the actors manage to navigate Brady’s language, which flies between a naturalistic prose and something more poetic, with rhyming couplets thrown in. West delivers a particularly nuanced performance as the teenage girl, who is full of an anger and frustration she can’t quite name or focus.
But it’s Brady who impresses most as the unnamed sex worker. It’s the strength of this character and Brady’s straight-forward and direct interpretation which endears the audience to a work that’s often a bitter pill to swallow.
Potts directs with an efficiency which serves the text well, even if it doesn’t exactly set the stage on fire. Michael Hankin’s costumes evoke the characters perfectly and his clinical set is lit effectively by Lucy Birkinshaw in cool tones.
Potts draws the two narratives together as effectively as possible, switching between the two at a rapid pace, and using Birkinshaw’s lighting to distinguish and then blur lines. Although Brady is clearly trying to explore the connection between thoughts and actions, and the violence we accept from ourselves and those around us in circumstances that stand poles apart, they don’t consistently gel dramatically. And the interaction between the sex worker and the scientist is written with greater clarity, which makes it far more compelling than that between the teenagers in the park.
Even with these structural problems, Ugly Mugs shines a light on the darkest parts of our streets and forces us to acknowledge some hard truths. You can’t ignore it.Ugly Mugs is at the Beckett Theatre, Malthouse until 7 June. Tickets are available at malthousetheatre.com.au