created by Nick Payne and Carrie Cracknell
at The Shed, Monday 27th January 2014
*The show features some mainstream songs which are all questionable in their representations of women. As a kind of counterbalance to this, I’ve popped in a few alternative tracks*
Blurred Lines begins and ends with a look at the ‘industry’ of which it is a part. At the top of the show, the cast of eight women recite a list of casting breakdowns which all boil down to stereotypes. The tone and repetition is borderline ritualistic, as if this stuff is so ingrained and accepted that the types can be summoned at will, like a seance for female character clichés. In a riotously funny coda at the other end of the show, the world of theatre itself is shown to be just as much a part of the problem as anything else.
This opening mirrors how many scripts begin, with basic, shallow and far-from-nuanced descriptions of the characters involved, thus voicing the subtext which would elsewhere only be implied. Immediately, we get a sense of the performance of gender, of being able to inhabit particular tropes based on the whims of others both in the media and in real life. It’s a simple enough gesture, but gets right to the heart of the problems surrounding sexism in 2014; more and more, we are expected to ‘perform’ notions of gender dictated by the media. As the show’s namesake demonstrates, women are cast as “want[ing] it”, whilst men are their liberators.
The marketing copy claims that Blurred Lines “dissect[s] what it means to be a woman today”, but that’s not quite what the show is about. The show’s mission, it seems to me, is far broader than that, attempting to understand the structures which exacerbate sexism and the way in which language is used to undermine the struggle for equality.
It does this in a variety of ways. ‘Director’ Carrie Cracknell and ‘Writer’ Nick Payne (I use those inverted commas because in this case their roles are fluid, seeing as they’ve co-created the piece and devised it with the cast) have chosen to present the show in a sort of revue format, mixing up songs among playlets and sketches. The songs are all sung by the cast in startling arrangements (Stuart Earl) in a way which brings their questionable lyrics to the fore, focusing as they do on doing “what you want with my body” and lusting after “girls“.
The sketches do a similar thing. One sees ‘David’ (Susannah Wise) admitting to ‘Carol’ (Lorna Brown) that he’s been sleeping with a sex worker and that “Paying for sex has made me respect it more”. The second has ‘Stella’ (Claire Skinner) patronised by her boss ‘Pamela’ (Bryony Hannah) and co-worker ‘Ray’ (Ruth Sheen). Another tells the story of ‘Karen’, who was raped by her boyfriend and subsequently dragged through the ordeal of bureaucratic court proceedings.
Having all these parts played by women does a number of very interesting things. Most obviously, it puts women in positions of power in these situations, rendering images of women performing violence on women. This in no small way subverts the ‘normalised’ representation of women in a way which lays bare the brutal oppression society performs on individuals. It also goes some way to asking questions about representation; where elsewhere we may be expected to see one character as standing in for a larger group, here they exist purely as figures caught in time, as words said by one human to another. Somewhat paradoxically, however, this refusal to be bound to notions of character means that we actually come to see a bigger picture and are asked to think more widely than the individuals on stage.
This is all bound up, of course, with issues surrounding the show’s representation of victimhood. As Catherine Love has pointed out, “women are still, with unsettling frequency, seen as victims here”. Though there’s no doubt that this is true, the show very clearly critiques this attitude, and Cracknell manages to ensure that we’re always ‘on the right side’, as it were, making us hyper-aware of the ‘message’. There are, of course, problems surrounding irony and postmodernism here: does parody amount to the same as endorsement?; does the use of irony in a show let us off the hook?; should theatre present life as it is or as it should be? In her Huffington Post review, Victoria Sadler suggests that “every single character in this play is a victim”. And though I kind of disagree with Sadler’s use of the words “character” and “play” in this context (the show resists both terms), there’s something to that phrase. Every ‘character’ (including the men) is at the mercy of a culture which perpetuates sexism and demeans humanity. That’s not to say that men are victims – I am well aware of the privilege my sex experiences – but that, if we carry on accepting sexism as a part of everyday life, it runs the risk of sacrificing our collective humanity.
The design in no small way contributes to the clarity of the show, both literally and metaphorically. Bunny Christie’s steep white steps thrust themselves out into the centre of The Shed’s playing space, illuminating the actors so their outlines are sharp and well-defined. It allows hierarchies to be played out and hypocrisies to be laid bare, and means the actors can feel either terrifyingly distant or excruciatingly close. It also, let’s be honest, looks pretty damn cool, and makes for some gorgeous stage pictures. There’s one moment when Lucy Carter’s red lighting on the steps flickers in such a way that makes it look like a rainbow, even though when we readjust our eyes it’s definitely red. Focus and perspective make blurred lines more clear.
Then there’s that brilliant coda. After the cast announce that they “weren’t given permission to perform Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines'” and the lights go out following a quick “Hey Hey Hey”, Claire Skinner announces that, apparently, some of the creative team are here and that we’re going to have a post-show discussion. “But that wasn’t on my ticket,” you think, before immediately realising that the ‘creative team’ of director ‘Martin’ and lead ‘Maria’ are actually played by Marion Bailey and Sinead Matthews respectively, so that even here genders and identities are being ‘performed’. It becomes very clear that ‘Martin’ is basically an amalgam of the powerful male directors of the late twentieth century (naming no names), justifying the sexism in his production and waxing lyrical about his design. It’s all very self-reflexive and fairly tame, but then Bryony Hannah stands up and starts challenging the ‘director’. She tells him she couldn’t watch “the bedroom scene” and that having ‘Maria’ in underwear was “unnecessary”. She’s met with derision but keeps on, reminding us that audience members do have power to have an effect on a show, to disrupt a performance. Then, pretty much screaming, she shouts “The problem I have is with this fucking Oxbridge fucking bullshit“, and there’s a woop and a cheer from the audience and you find yourself clapping, and though (of course), sexism isn’t just a simple “Oxbridge” problem, you realise that it is one which is bound up with notions of class and education and that, no matter how ‘intelligent’ your justification, there is no excuse for a misogynistic representation of women on stage.
As much as I am kind of in love with the fact that this show even exists, with its devised approach, all-women cast and progressive argument, there is something which has been niggling me. In Love’s review, she points out that the show “critiques the [National Theatre’s] gender inequalities from within its very walls”. But that’s only half true, isn’t it? The Shed, as much as it is an NT space and is very much a part of their programme, is external to the actual building. There’s something interesting in this. It’s almost like the National is happy to support and nurture all these risks and arguments (and thank God they are), but only at a slight remove. It’s ever-so-slightly reminiscent of the “free speech zones” we heard so much about towards the middle of the last decade, and mirrors the way in which late capitalism builds protest into its very structures. The genius of neoliberalism is that subsumes dissent into its structures, making it into a ‘lifestyle choice’ and giving space for argument whilst never really listening to it. In some ways, the National could be seen to be doing the same thing with The Shed, giving room for a different approach in a way which means it doesn’t have to take those ideas on board (though the proof of the venue’s success will, I imagine, come later). Like I say, I’m by no means criticising the existence of Blurred Lines, I just think it’s worth considering where it’s being played.
It’s quite surprising how many reviewers of this show have had a problem with the fact that it had a male ‘writer’ when they don’t seem to be complaining the rest of the time. As far as I’m concerned, the fact that Payne ‘wrote’ the thing (and again, we have to be mindful of the fact that it wasn’t put together in a ‘conventional’ way) is one of the show’s many positives, as it demonstrates that feminist thought and argument should and can come from men just as much as it comes from women.
And therein lies the reason why Blurred Lines is so brilliant – it explodes a debate, asks us to talk, to argue and, ultimately, to change the way we may think and act. It does all this with fierce clarity and with a robustness of argument that it’s rare to see in mainstream theatre, even whilst keeping an eye on maintaining a sense of pure theatre and high-quality image-making. It may stray into problematic territory, fail to offer alternatives and inch into being a piece of theatre-about-theatre, but it never pretends to have the answers and asks us – nay, implores us – to keep on talking.
Photo: Simon Kane