Melbourne-based writer and performer Peta Brady is also an outreach worker who knows how people fall through the cracks of society and are left to fend for themselves. She’s seen the violence, hatred and despair, and the hope. Ugly Mugs is a glimpse of this world that is too easy to look away from.
When a St Kilda resident was violently murdered last year, the media barely raised an eyebrow because she was a sex worker. Her family, friends and life beyond her work were dismissed as irrelevant. I didn’t live very far away from her; I might have sat next to her on the tram, but I didn’t recognise her.
Ugly mugs lists, updated and distributed by sex workers, describe aggressive and violent clients. Ugly Mugs is the interwoven stories of a sex worker who met one such mug and of a teenage boy who was the last person to see a young woman before she disappeared.
The first story takes place in the forensic morgue where the dead woman (Brady) talks with the doctor performing her autopsy (Steve Le Marquand). The second takes place in the park where the teenagers (Harry Borland and Sara West) met and at the boy’s home with his mother (also played by Brady).
A few weeks ago, I went to Melbourne’s forensic morgue. It was the 4 am show of The 24-Hour Experience that was part of FOLA (Festival of Live Art). The morgue is a short walk from the Malthouse theatre. As an art experience, we saw the Homicide Room where she would have been taken. The sight of a woman on a stainless steel medical trolley was enough to see her in that sterile room filled with hoses and knives, and as she spoke to be walking along streets in St Kilda, where street workers are as accepted as lost tourists looking for Acland Street cakes.
Yeah, it’s too easy to look away.
Played out on a rough grey asphalt floor (design by Michael Hankin) that begs for bloody scrapes and scars, Ugly Mugs is emotionally raw theatre that invites us to look at our communities a little more closely, without peaching that we must. Dramatically, the second story isn’t as tight as the first and having Brady as the murdered woman and the mother leads to some initial confusion, but neither takes away from the impact or heartfelt truth of the work.
As the “Australian writers don’t get supported on our main stages” conversation has been active this week, Ugly Mugs is proof that wonderful Australian writing is thriving.