Watching Blurred Lines, Nick Payne’s latest play created in close collaboration with director, Carrie Cracknell and the eight members of the all-female cast, is not a particularly comfortable experience for a male reviewer. This is not because it consists of seventy minutes of radicalised polemic damning all men to one of Dante’s more unpleasant circles of hell but rather because it does the reverse; performances are restrained, arguments are calm and reasonable, but clearly lying underneath the surface is an anger. An anger one suspects is born out both of individual experience and universal frustration.
It is primarily directed at rather oblique targets; the unthinking gender stereotyping that is engrained into societies structures, the hardwired responses that define human relationships and the way that our understanding of women is being moulded by the relentlessly battery of consumer culture.
To describe the production as a play is not quite accurate, as it suggests a more cohesive piece that has a narrative thread running through it. What is presented is more a series of case studies – template models of the gender imbalances women face on a daily basis. This approach is perhaps not surprising, in part because it is based on Kat Banyard’s book, The Equality Illusion, and also because the purpose is to present the universal alongside the individual.
If this all sounds a little dry then the collaborative feel of the work, performed by an excellent cast, give the scenes the relaxed feel of a community workshop rather than the cold air of a lecture theatre. The bite-size chunks also suit the modern world’s preferred way of digesting information; in the internet age grand narratives are out and bullet-point lists are in. If you don’t engage with one scene – and not all of them work perfectly – then don’t worry as another will be along in a moment.
Blurred Lines is bookended with two stand-out scenes. Nick Payne, as he has demonstrated in previous work, has a poet’s ear for finding something musical in everyday language. This is showcased in the first scene, which reminds of the opening to London Road, itself a piece of verbatim theatre, and that demonstrates that real speech, taken out of context, can contain a tremendous power and vitality.
The scene sets the play’s direction with a wonderfully observed perspective of what being a woman means to other people. The cast come together as one voice with many mouths to present the audience with a series of tart one-liners of how women are portrayed. In the scene women are broken down to nameless, definable adjectives; when they are deemed worthy of being given more status it is directly through their relationship to a male. They become ‘wife of…’, ‘mother of…’ and through this their lives are given an implicit meaning.
The round starts with common descriptions that soon descend to absurdity and anger with the relentless repetition and the fall-back to common descriptors. Rose West’s ‘character face’ repeats again and again, and any initial amusement fades as the audience understands that it is another example of the malleability of the English language that has learnt to hide overt misogyny behind a second, socially acceptable double-speak.
The play ends with a wonderfully barbed performance by Marion Bailey as an unnamed theatre director (although any regular theatre-goers will have their suspicions on who it might be, it is on good authority that Civilian Theatre understands it to be a composite – and an all too familiar one at that) and Sinéad Matthews as a young female actress in a Q&A with the audience. Here Payne turns the spotlight back onto those who have managed to sit smugly through the play to that point, feeling that they recognise the issues being discussed but not possible thinking it could apply to them.
Matthews sits mute as Bailey outlines the vision of the play and the necessity of sexualising the character. When challenged from the floor Bailey’s director, rather than acknowledging a valid criticism, falls back on traditional defences deployed in such circumstances; that art sits on a higher level than such petty issues. It is again another example of the use of institutionalised thinking to stifle debate by categorising some arguments as being more worthy than others.
It would be interesting to know what was going through Matthews’ mind as the scene was developed. A talented actress, she has recently played Beatrice in The Changeling and Margarita in Complicite’s Master and Margarita. Both were excellent productions but, in their separate ways, both required Matthew’s to display a physical vulnerability; the line where artistic prerogative blurs into prurience being a fine one.
The point made is an important one – intelligent, educated liberally minded people may express their disgust at Robin Thicke or roll their eyes at the perennially sleazy Terry Richardson and the influence that he may or may not hold over Miley Cyrus (and a raft of other young, female celebrities) but they all too often turn a blind eye to the pernicious artist/muse relationship in more high-minded circles.
Art is certainly not impervious to the same kind of institutionalised patriarchy, where women’s sexuality becomes a fetishized commodity, and the theatre director’s vision is hardly a world away from tales of Hollywood agents and their casting couches. Indeed perhaps the cinematic touch point for the intellectual liberal of a certain age is Woody Allen and there has never been any appetite by his supporters to address with any depth the director’s dynamic with his leading women or the inappropriateness of his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn.
Blurred Lines is an astute title. Whilst obviously riffing on the song, it is also applicable to the scenes that they chose to portray. They are based around issues – a woman’s return to work after pregnancy, a girlfriend who is coerced into unwanted sex, a wife who finds her husband has been visiting an escort – that are debated in the grey. When the battle lines are drawn they will not be split straight down gender lines and the answers are not always clear cut.
The issues also highlight the tension that splits a women into her predefined roles – the mother of the boyfriend who is accused of rape in a relationship, the woman who felt that as she made it at work then why should others struggle, the wife whose husband uses her lack of desire for sex as a justification for seeing a prostitute. These scenes highlight that the ability of women to present a united front is undercut by the dual role that society expects them to play.
Unsurprisingly Robin Thicke did not give permission for Blurred Lines to be used with this production. The cast end with an instantly recognisable, if not copyright-infringing, ‘Ha Ha Ha’. Ultimately they didn’t need to use the song, the point was firmly, reasonably and articulately made long before.