A play against the Ugly Mugs

By Pia White

Play review by Pia White

Ugly Mugs | Peta Brady | Malthouse Theatre

It is indicative of the confronting subject matter of Ugly Mugs that the first lines of the piece are delivered by a dead woman.

The play, directed by Marion Potts does not shy away from its themes of violence against, and degradation of, sex workers, yet handles them with both boldness and compassion.

The play centres around two intertwined narratives involving four unnamed characters. The first is the touching and humorous exchange between a deceased sex worker (Peta Brady) and the coroner (Steve Le Marquand) preparing her body for autopsy. The second follows an encounter between two teenagers (Harry Borland and Sara West) who meet in a park.

Peta Brady wrote and stars in Ugly Mugs, which takes its name from a publication complied by Melbourne sex workers to warn others of dangerous, violent or otherwise unseemly “mugs.” The story was inspired by Brady’s experiences working as a drug and safety officer, and informed by the death of her friend and St Kilda sex worker, Tracy Connelly in July last year.

Arguably the play’s most effective technique is the symbolic parallel between the pervasive undermining of sex workers’ bodily autonomy and the right of access that the coroner has to Brady’s character’s body …

Elements of Tracy’s story are evident during the play.  At one point, Brady’s character excitedly enquires as to what sort of fanfare her death has evoked, only to be informed that there was no march in the streets, no extensive media coverage, only a modest tribute wall near where she worked. This echoes commentary discussing the problematic media treatment of Tracey’s murder, particularly in contrast to the coverage of Jill Meagher’s death the year before.

Woven throughout the play are references to the societal attitudes and stigmas surrounding sex work. The central theme is clearly the continued perpetration of violence against sex workers. This is never more overtly conveyed than when the coroner reads entries from the “ugly mugs” pamphlet that he finds wedged in Brady’s character’s boot.  The stories are harrowing and the detached style in which they are written serves to underline what a commonplace fixture these incidents are for many sex workers. However, the play also touches on questions of consent, bodily autonomy and stereotyping.

In one scene, Brady’s character recounts assumptions made as to her neglectful parenting and drug use, which arguably would not have been made if not for her profession. The prejudices that tend to be projected onto sex workers are more evident when juxtaposed with the unquestionably naïve, but forgivable assumption that West’s character makes about scratch marks inside a mug’s car being left there by a puppy. In another, Brady’s character makes a passing reference to a boy who sold his kidney for an iPad. It is not hard to imagine that such a news story would be the subject of incredulity, but not the disparagement and judgement reserved for people who use their body to sell a service.

Arguably the play’s most effective technique is the symbolic parallel between the pervasive undermining of sex workers’ bodily autonomy and the right of access that the coroner has to Brady’s character’s body after her passing. At one point the coroner describes the incision he needs to make in order to examine her organs and she retorts, “What, don’t I get a say?”  This is clearly reminiscent of the attitude of a certain few that sex workers have relinquished their control over their own bodies by virtue of their chosen profession.

When the murderous “mug” finally makes an appearance, the vitriol he spouts about the “hard rubbish” he is cleaning off the streets seems designed less to reductively demonise an undoubtedly repugnant character, and more to encourage audience reflection on the enduring and harmful way society often views and dismisses sex workers.

Ugly Mugs is playing at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne until 7 June 2014.


Brolgas art work by Phoebe McIlwraith

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