In the Thicke of It

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Nick Payne's Blurred Lines

National Theatre | London

directed by Carrie Cracknall

I had a potential father-in-law who used to bark at me for using the term ‘actor’ for female performers. “You wouldn’t call a waitress ‘waiter’, would you? Men and women are different, don’t try and tell me they’re not.” I didn’t. They are different. The question is the difference in treatment.

It only takes the opening of a newspaper to see the noxious effects of sexism across the globe. Here in the UK we’ve come a long way, but we cannot forget we are all connected – never so much as today – by the blink of a router’s lights. The relentless advertising campaigns, media fixations and Twitter furores here in the West do have an impact on the rest of the world. If anything we have an even greater duty now to show that the will to equality works – that it isn’t some emperor’s clothing exchanging old sexism for new.

And so it’s a fine time to see this piece. Just this week a female theatre company has been fighting an online skirmish, rebutting accusations of sexism for selecting female playwrights. The ineloquent confusion of the male writers can be pitied, if not admired. Blurred Lines is the perfect title for this production for many reasons: many men feel baffled as to what they are doing wrong. It’s a dilemma which writer Nick Payne commendably reflects on in the programme: “I’d had some criticism about female characters in a play I’d written, and I had that slightly, maybe clichéd, male reaction of ‘oh, that can’t possibly be true – of course I’m not a misogynist’.” He highlights that it’s difficult enough for men to consider what inequality means and how it manifests itself, nevermind understanding how to tackle it.

The ridiculousness of sexism is the first target here. Eight extraordinary actors take to Bunny Christie’s brilliantly brazen stage of vertiginous steps, which flicker and flare to a soundtrack of ‘Lapdance’, ‘Do What U Want’ and ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)’. Payne and Carrie Cracknall have taken Kat Banyard’s impassioned book The Equality Illusion as their lodestar, and Cracknall directs with an energy that is both blistering and utterly reasonable. Blurred Lines was mostly devised by the company comes across fantastically in an opening scene where the actors relate their typical roles. The snowballing clichés, hilarious at first (“girl-next-door” “bubbly blonde” “old woman, character face”), gradually become suffocating. It develops into an onslaught of imaginative malfunction; anyone who has ever seen a casting breakdown will cringe in recognition. Michaela Coel ends the charade with the bewitching poetry of the bewildered. The theatrical theme returns as the production is book-ended by a dodgy Q&A with a blustering Oxbridge director. Marion Bailey is squirmishly perfect as the waffling artist blathering his way out of needless gratuity. This meta-theatre, indulgent so often elsewhere, provides a gut-punching microcosm.

The actors’ contributions of their experiences are tempered by more everyday stories, snappily performed: a mother dealing with a brick wall of apathy at work; a conversation about prostitution in which a husband essentially blames his wife for his illicit activities; two mothers meeting in a supermarket, desperately championing their own versions of a sexual assault between their children. Not only is this beautifully, brutally honest acting; it means something to us, today.

That the Robin Thicke song of the title was last year’s best selling single is a travesty for more than our musical sensibilities. But the great success of this piece is that it heralds – hopefully, but hope is here the factor – a change in the air. Not only in theatre, where Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings and Lucy Kerbel’s 100 Great Plays For Women are helping us consider how far we have come and still have to go. Online and in print, we are reflecting on how little we know of how little we know of equality. A ferocious piece that rightly suggests that the only way forward is gently. But firmly.

photo | ©Simon Kane

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