The play Blurred Lines has just finished its run at the National Theatre’s Shed. Jaz Blackwell-Pal reviews this political piece of theatre that highlights how powerful women are in the face of misogyny and a sexist onslaught.
Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines was the best selling single of 2013, selling 1.5 million copies in the UK alone and topping charts all over the world. It also generated widespread anger, with more than 20 student unions across the country banning the song from being played in their bars. Besides containing lyrics such as “I know you want it” and a guest verse from T.I which includes “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”, the song was also accompanied by a music video which features models, completely naked apart from flesh coloured g-strings, dancing around a fully-suited Thicke. When asked to justify the video, Thicke explained his excitement at the concept: “What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotton to do that before. I’ve always respected women”.
So what a pleasure it is see his Thicke and those of his mind-set ridiculed and taken down in this new play at the National Theatre’s Shed. Writer Nick Payne was inspired to pitch the play by both the controversy surrounding the song and by Kat Banyard’s book The Equality Illusion, which he decided to read after being criticised for his portrayal of women in a previous play. While Payne and director Carrie Cracknell have woven the material into a tight and coherent script, equal credit must go to the seven women who not only perform the show, but also provided many of the ideas and background research that went into it.
Blurred Lines is an exhilarating one hour and ten minutes of theatre. The play is staged on a giant translucent staircase, a design that brings to mind both the glass ceiling and the career ladder that women are expected to smash and climb simultaneously. It is interspersed with popular songs from across the last few decades, although permission to perform the title song was unsurprisingly denied. The juxtaposing of songs like “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” recorded by the Crystals in 1962, with “Lapdance” which was recorded by N.E.R.D in 2001, highlights how little the portrayal of women in popular culture has changed over the years.
The fact that the play uses a sketch format and lacks a consistent narrative may put some people off, but in fact this allows it to explore a range of experience and veer into a number of different subjects facing women today. Running throughout the play is a sense of gender as performance, of women being forced to play roles that have been predesigned for them. Theatre is a particularly interesting medium to explore this in because the actors are of course literally playing their roles, and much of the material they have come up with clearly stems from their experiences as women in the world of theatre.
The play opens with the cast reeling off a list of types and roles that they can be expected to play, from the bubbly northern blonde to the illegal immigrant to the middle class alcoholic wife. The fact that we recognise many of these actors from playing similar parts to those they are satirising adds to the effect of the play.
For example its particularly funny to see Claire Skinner, who audiences may recognise from the BBC sitcom “Outnumbered”, list the roles she can expect to play, mainly involving the words ‘mother’ and “wife”. While the idea of being categorised and stereotyped is something all women can relate to, playing on the idea of type cast actors highlights the point brilliantly. The desperation of the character played by Michaela Cole, who offers to fulfil every stereotype imaginable if it will get her acting work, is a reflection of the harsh reality for many women working in ultra competitive creative sectors.
The play explores a number of themes from this perspective. Early on in the performance Sinead Matthews plays a woman who is sexually assaulted on a night out and screams for help during her attack. As a director yells “cut” and the lights go on we realise she is in fact being filmed and directed, acting out the role of victim. After a few takes of the scene the woman changes from being a fully clothes jogger to wearing a mini skirt and high heels, and the perpetrator goes from being a hooded figure to totally disappearing in the final take. We are left with the stark image of a barely dressed woman dragging herself across a stage, up flights of stairs and screaming for help as she flies back and forth. The scene is an interesting commentary on the media portrayal of rape and assault, and what the gaze of the director wants us to see. The woman in this scene is attacked in the street at night by a stranger – already a misleading portrayal of how sexual assault usually takes place. The perpetrator is hidden from view, first by their hood and finally by being cut from the scene altogether. All we are allowed to see is a deliberately engineered image of a reckless victim, one of the ones who was “asking for it”. The person responsible for the attack is absent from this director’s vision.
What manages to hold all these different issues together is the sheer talent of the actors, who are all completely compelling and convincing in every role. In the final scene of the play the audience is led to believe that the performance is over and a post show talk is beginning. Except instead of the real director, we are presented with Marion Bailey playing a fictional male director, and the audience gradually realises that this is still part of the performance. Bailey is absolutely brilliant in the role and had the audience in fits of laughter with her all too recognisable characterisation of the arrogant “artistic” male who places his creative concept before all other concerns. When challenged on why one of his characters has to go through a traumatic domestic scene in nothing but her underwear he cannot comprehend why women would find this appalling, or why he is expected to take responsibility for that portrayal.
The subtle way many of the issues are handled is also to the credit of the cast and writer. It is clear that careful research has been done, and that care has been taken not to resort to tired clichés that often ruin political theatre of this nature. One of the stand out moments is when a working mother is confronted by her boss and colleague, both women, who ask how she is managing to juggle her part-time career with motherhood. At first the boss presents herself as sympathetic and concerned for her employee’s wellbeing. But as the tension heightens and the scene unfolds it becomes apparent that the managers of the company have no concern for their employee at all, and when the boss finally snaps and exclaims “you’ll only remain in this job as long as your profitable” it betrays the truth behind the management speak we are all subjected to.
The programme notes to the show contain a list of shocking statistics uncovered by the cast. Amongst these stands out the fact that women worldwide own only one percent of the means of production. Yet next to this sits the fact that they also do two thirds of the world’s work. Women have huge economic and political power in a system driven by their labour. Blurred Lines is in no way a defeatist piece of theatre, but instead highlights how powerful women are in the face of misogyny and a sexist onslaught. The show is brief and cannot cover the multitude of issues it wants to address in depth, but it feels like the beginning of a change. The fact it has been produced by the National Theatre is incredibly significant for an establishment which is still woefully inadequate in terms of women’s representation: only 15 percent of the plays produced by the NT in the past decade were written by women. The audience left Blurred Lines feeling charged, angry, but ready to fight. In a time of growing resistance to oppression, this is exactly the kind of theatre we need.