Blurred Lines, National Theatre

Blurred Lines

Last week I went to see one of the final performances of Blurred Lines, which unfortunately means I’m posting this after the run has come to an end. This is a shame, as I really enjoyed Blurred Lines; when I left the theatre I was telling those I had gone to see it with that I would happily have sat through another hour. I even tweeted as much. However, despite my enjoyment, I also had serious issues with it.

Blurred Lines was ‘created’ by Nick Payne (of Constellations fame) and Carrie Cracknell (who directed a marvellous production of A Doll’s House last year) and ‘devised by the Company’. It claims to be a ‘blistering journey through contemporary gender politics,’ dissecting ‘what it means to be a woman today’ and exploring the ‘reality of equality in Britain’. These are big statements. They’re also timely, following a year in which some saw a ‘fourth wave’ of feminism while Robin Thicke’s song ‘Blurred Lines’ was number one in fourteen countries around the world, including the UK and USA. This is a song accompanied by an incredibly misogynistic video that objectifies women, and composed of lyrics that arguably promote rape culture and distressing attitudes towards sex and relationships.

What Blurred Lines does well is draw attention to how sexism is endemic in our culture. The play is composed of numerous short scenes which blend seamlessly together and cover such things as violent sexual attacks, a man attempting to justify – to his wife – his use of prostitutes (because he pays the woman, it’s an act of ‘respect’) and how working mothers are treated differently (generally worse), often by other women. Interestingly, Blurred Lines is bookended by two scenes that force theatre – and the arts in general – to ask to what extent it is actively participating in this culture. The play opens with the eight-strong cast reeling off a list of roles to which women are often reduced in the arts, as in life: wife, mother, lover, girlfriend, Northerner, blonde, receptionist, whore, mistress, old woman, middle-aged woman . . . It ends with an interview between a male theatre director and his leading actress. He talks arrogantly, expansively, totally dominating the conversation yet not actually answering any of the questions put to him, most notably the one about why he felt it was necessary for the actress to be wearing only her underwear in a particularly difficult scene. She, when she does speak, does so quietly, tentatively, and always references him in her answers. 

There continues to be much discussion – and rightly so – about the lack of roles and visibility for women in the arts, not only as actresses but also as writers, producers, directors and more, and it’s great to see a play openly deal with this problem. Yet, while I am a huge fan of Nick Payne, I can’t deny that it bothers me that the writer here is a man. Director Carrie Cracknell was interviewed in the Guardian about why she hired Payne. She makes some interesting points, and Payne’s writing in Blurred Lines is frequently brilliant – full of pace, drama and vigour; composed of interesting, varied rhythms; by turns hilarious and shocking – but it is still depressing that they couldn’t commission a female writer for a play that allegedly wants to take issue with how women are depicted, represented and treated by society and in our culture: by using a male writer isn’t it perpetuating the current gender imbalance? Perhaps I missed them, but not many reviews seemed to make much of this either. I wonder, would this have been the case if – and this is just one of many possible examples – this were a play written by a white, heterosexual male about what it’s like to be gay/lesbian/trans today?

Much could also be said about the sketch-style structure of Blurred Lines. The strong writing and varied methods of delivery – songs, poetry, dance, rap to name just some – hold our attention brilliantly throughout and also ensure that a high level of energy is maintained; the scenes are often swift, regularly overlap in interesting ways and the 70 minutes zip by as we wonder what aspect of the female experience is going to be illustrated next. The cast perform a variety of roles in the different sketches and give a brilliant example of the best kind of ensemble work. Yet a common casualty of a sketch-based show is lack of depth: we are only given glimpses into the lives of these women, each of which could be easily be extended into a full-length play. At some point in our lives we have probably all had to deal with one or more of the issues being dramatised, and, while it’s good that Blurred Lines puts them front and centre, we aren’t seeing anything we’re not already aware of. Furthermore, the marvellous actresses aren’t given the opportunity to move beyond the roles they were assigned in the roll call in the opening scene, and all these roles are those of weak women, defined by their relationship to men. There’s a worrying lack of positive female role models.

Is there meant to be a subliminal message here: we leave the theatre feeling pleased to be part of a society where such a play can be staged, and to such success, whereas actually we should be asking ourselves how complicit we are in perpetuating the discrimination, objectification and sexism? I’m not sure there is. Blurred Lines tries very hard to be entertaining – there’s no denying that, while many scenes are uncomfortable, there’s a humour and energy about the piece that makes it an enjoyable evening – and it doesn’t pose any new questions, but appears to be content to highlight issues we’ve long been grappling with. Yes, I suppose it’s a good thing that we have theatre that does – hopefully – inspire the audience to think about feminism and about the position of women in contemporary society, but is that enough? Is it OK to just ask the same questions, to simply illustrate the problems that women face on a daily basis and hope that this will spark something? Something being what? Debate? Discussion? Change?

In as far as dissecting what it means to be a woman today, Blurred Lines does successfully demonstrate how hard that can be. Yet that’s all it does – each and every one of the female characters on stage is a victim. It’s a shame, then, that the play doesn’t also celebrate how amazing it is to be a woman. You do get a sense of the fellowship and camaraderie that exists among the cast – no doubt it would have been fascinating to sit in on rehearsals and watch how they collaborated on the material – but this doesn’t come through in the individual sketches. There is something wonderful about female friendships and about what can be achieved by a group of women – something many women mention when asked what they think is best about being a woman. It’s certainly something that ought to be represented and celebrated in a play that attempts to analyse the contemporary female experience.

Despite these criticisms, I would be urging you to go and see Blurred Lines if it were still playing. It might have led you to think about your own attitudes towards women and how (un)equal our society is. You probably would have enjoyed it. You might even have loved it and not noticed or taken issue with any of the things I mentioned above. Yet that’s what worries me.

http://theshed.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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