New Griffin play Ugly Mugs confronts sex work and violence head on
Taking its title from the name sex workers use for aggressive clients, Peta Brady’s Ugly Mugs emerged from a Melbourne shocked by violence against women, writes Garrett Bithell.
For the past 15 years, actress Peta Brady has been working as a drug and safety outreach worker in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. She was one of the last people to see sex worker Tracy Connelly alive before she was murdered in July last year – in the van in which she lived with her boyfriend.
Brady’s contact with Melbourne’s sex workers led her to write Ugly Mugs, her third play, which will open at Griffin Theatre Company this week after premiering at Malthouse Theatre in May. Directed by Malthouse artistic director Marion Potts, and starring Brady alongside Steve Le Marquand, Sara West and Harry Borland, the title ‘Ugly Mugs’ is derived from a grassroots publication developed by the Prostitute Collective of Victoria (now RHED) in 1986. In was created as a response to the under-reporting of violent incidents committed against sex workers and the lack of support and protection they receive from police and legal institutions, and refers to the name sex workers use for aggressive clients. Unlike New South Wales, street-based sex work is illegal in Victoria.
But as Brady asserts, her play is not just about sex workers. It seeks to interrogate the culture of abuse lurking in the shadows of every Australian city. “It’s about violence against women generally,” she tells SX. “Tracy was murdered just after I started writing Ugly Mugs, so of course that fed into the writing process because it was so fresh and raw. But the play is not about Tracy.
“I used to have to hand out the Ugly Mugs brochure as part of my job, so I was always interested in women on the street – whether they were working or not – and how they were dealing with the violence, and whose rights were treated differently.”
Rather than being naturalistic, Ugly Mugs takes on a poetic style that sees two separate storylines eventually intersect over a 24-hour period in the same park. “During the writing process I got some sex worker friends to read it, and during rehearsals I got a sex worker who had been on the streets for 30 years – she’s in her 50s now – into the room. I really needed to make sure I got the territory right and that things were being spoken about properly because I didn’t want to put anything out there that wasn’t true to the territory.”
Whether we choose to admit it or not, violence against women in general – whether on the street or in the home – is an endemic part of Australian culture. As Brady tells, ultimately the conversation has to start with the perpetrators: men.
“I know that they deal with violence as well, but men are the perpetrators in the overwhelming majority of cases,” Brady says. “So I think men really need to have the discussion. Women are talking about it all the time – but I don’t see men discussing it, beyond the token publicity shot and empty declarations from some politician every now and then. If we’re going to see any change, it must start with men.”
Ugly Mugs, Stables Theatre (10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross) until August 23. Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au
[Main image] Peta Brady in Ugly Mugs. Photo: Supplied