Clarity of thought amidst the blurred lines

Blurred Lines – The Shed, National Theatre until 22 February

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 ingrained into societies structures, the hardwired responses that define human relationships and the way that our understanding of women is being moulded Blurred Lines, The Shed 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.

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It’s Beauty and the Beast in Young Vic’s alternative Christmas panto

The Changeling – Young Vic, until 22 December 2012

One of the more interesting aspects of going to watch a lot of theatre is the sight of an idea dusted off to be given a new lease of life and then mainstreamed across London until audiences get tired of it again. The current default
position doing the rounds is that staple motif of directors looking for a fresh angle to breathe life into classic texts; playing the play as a play within a play.

The Changeling

Last year Ian Rickson’s Hamlet was set in the world of 1970’s psychiatry and the action unfolded with references abound to RD Laing, Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar – currently at the Donmar – is set within the confines of a women’s prison and, not having yet seen it, one would imagine that power structures of the play reflect upon the institutional setting. Joe Hill-Gibbin’s take on The Changeling – Thomas Middleton’s and William Rowley’s Jacobean tragedy – appears to be set within a mental institute with the audience taking on the role of paying guests.

The advantage of doing this is that it liberates the text from the confines of the period in which it was written and it allows space for allusions and references that would not otherwise be possible. The criticism is equally obvious – directorial authority runs roughshod over the intentions of the playwright and their director’s decision-making becomes the critical factor in the production.

This is less of a problem for The Changeling – a play where the plot is so bizarre and bloody that it is hard to understand how it could ever be played with serious intent, seemingly more suited to the plays of Le Theatre du Grand-Guignol. Yet there is an enduring popularity to Jacobean tragedy that seems to be shared by mass audiences and critics alike. The revival of The Changeling has been broadly welcomed, whilst Cheek by Jowl’s equally modern take on ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore was a critical success and tickets for Punchdrunk’s unique, if fantastically over-hyped, production of The Duchess of Malfi in an abandoned Docklands office block were like gold-dust.

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