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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Mission: Accomplished

Mission Drift – The Shed, National Theatre, until 28 June (some tickets available)

You can’t fail to notice the The Shed, the National Theatre’s striking addition to London’s Southbank. It looks a little like a student’s upturned IKEA table. In bright red. Walking into this new temporary venue, which on the inside is somewhat reminiscent of The Young Vic, is quite an adventure in itself; the smell of new wood, a wonderfully up close and personal stage area, visible stage management and technical. I like it already.

The Shed or Battersea Power Station after an elaborate student prankThe idea behind The Shed is for The National Theatre to celebrate original, ambitious and unexpected new theatre in an excitingly small venue. And on this level, boy does Mission Drift deliver.

Created by New York based The TEAM, Mission Drift is a stunning, well-crafted and inventive musical, yes it’s a musical, which takes us on a whirlwind journey through the American dream. From Las Vegas to New Amsterdam, covering 400 years of political and economic history (atomic bombs, economic downturns, slavery, prospecting, gambling; it’s all here), we follow two couples on their pioneering adventures.

In the world we recognise is Joan; a cocktail waitress laid off from her job and alienated from Las Vegas – the city she once lived for. Joan’s life is changed by the arrival of a mysterious and beguiling

Mission Drift's take on Americana

stranger who offers her a way out of everything she knows. And loves. This is equated to the mythical journey undertaken by two 14 year olds, Catalina and Joris, setting sail from Europe with the Dutch West India Company to start a new dream, in a land where space, as well as life, is cheap.

All of this is overseen by Miss Atomic (Heather Christian), an all at once alluring and repulsive figure who epitomises the best and worst of American capitalism. Her narration is funny, sleazy and engaging – a clever way of holding this bubbling pot of ideas together. She has a voice that grabs you by the balls and dominates the space. I wish her character could have been more intertwined with the two couples but it was a stunning and strong performance that captured the fragility of the American Dream perfectly.

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