REVIEW: Blurred Lines, The Shed Theatre at The National ✭✭✭✭✭

Blurred Lines at The National Theatre Shed
The cast of Blurred Lines. Photo: Simon Kane

Blurred Lines
The Shed Theatre, National Theatre
February 22, 2014

Sometimes the theatre can be fun. Sometimes it can be shocking. Sometimes it can be worthy. Sometimes it can be spell-binding. Sometimes it can be scary. Sometimes it can be raw. Sometimes it can be powerful. Sometimes it can be educational. Sometimes it can be elegant. Sometimes it can be overwhelming. Sometimes it can be inspiring. Sometimes it can change the world. Sometimes it can be silly. Sometimes it can be gentle. Sometimes it can be radical. Sometimes it can be political. Sometimes it can make you remember why theatre is such a profoundly important part of any culture.

Very rarely, the theatre can be all of those things at once.

Blurred Lines, which finished its run at the National’s The Shed yesterday, was one of those very rare occasions. Seventy minutes of fury, eloquent argument, bravura performances, chilling insight and a crisp, clean illumination of one of the fundamental horrors of modern life: the way women are abused, marginalised and objectified because they are women.

Created by Nick Payne (a gifted writer) and Carrie Cracknell (who directs here with brisk determination and with spectacular insight and clarity) out of improvised work from the company of eight excellent actresses, all loosely based on or evoked by Kat Barnyard’s book The Equality Illusion, Blurred Lines is a timely, powerful and viscerally thrilling work which raises, in an unflinching and uncompromising way, important and fundamental questions about society’s maltreatment of women.

In a series of vignettes and small scenes, the company of able women artfully examine issues which range from judgments (by casting directors amongst others) made on the basis of appearance, inherent misogyny in mainstream media, rape in marriage, gender politics in the workplace, the horror of high heels and the murky justifications men adopt when justifying their use of online pornography and prostitutes. It’s difficult territory, but important, and although the topics are serious there are many moments of genuine humour and the whole proceeding is wrapped in warmth and hope.

The acting is endlessly brave, insightful and layered with complexity and understanding. Each if the eight actresses are superb, and their cohesion as an ensemble is remarkable. Marion Bailey, Lorna Brown, Michaela Coel, Bryony Hannah, Sinéad Matthews, Ruth Sheen, Claire Skinner and Susannah Wise: each excel – no one here cannot do the difficult and skilled work required.

Particularly impressive is the way the eight skip between various characters. The audience is never lost in a maelstrom of multiplicity of roles – everything is specific and perfectly judged. One of the most startling achievements comes when various actresses play men – they do this with a seamless simplicity that is dazzling. Susannah Wise as the husband justifying his use of prostitutes, Ruth Sheen as the spineless male co-worker unable or unwilling to stop blatant sexual discrimination, Marion Bailey as the ghastly, unprincipled and exploitative director calmly justifying his shameless exploitation of his glamorous female star: each portrait of male monstrosity is superbly judged.

Especially interesting are the moments when the complicity of women in the maltreatment of other women is examined. Bryony Hannah (better than she has ever been on stage before) is truly frightening as the female manager admonishing her part-time employee purely for her commitment to her children and the moment when Michaela Coel’s under-attack employee accuses her of turning into a man is both electric and spot on.

Coel is also magnificent in the scene where she chances upon Ruth Sheen’s mother of her daughter’s boyfriend in the supermarket and tries to avoid a difficult conversation centred around the daughter’s attempts to have her boyfriend convicted for in-relationship rape. Coel is brilliant here; but so too is Sheen, doggedly and determinedly spinning her son’s side of the story and implacably refusing to believe that he might have behaved wrongly. Both mothers are determined to see justice done for their child – but only one assumes that the daughter had consented because “they had done it before”. It’s an incredibly powerful exchange and one that will haunt audiences long after they are comfortably home.

But, in the grand tradition, the best scene is saved til the last when Bailey, Coel and the luminous Sinéad Matthews enact a Q and A in front of a live audience following a viewing of a work that Bailey’s old school, vile director has “created with” Matthews’ glamorous star. Hannah, as a member of the audience, asks a question about why Bailey’s director thought it was okay to objectify Matthews’ character in a crucial bedroom scene where there was much focus on Matthews’ body and underwear. Bailey dismisses Hannah’s questions but she persists and Bailey’s responses become increasing glib, superior, condescending and facile. In the process, Matthews’ character realises she has been duped, betrayed, humiliated, and soon after Hannah drops her microphone and leaves the session, followed by other audience members, Matthews too leaves, shaken to her core.

As Matthews’ character shook, so too did every audience member. The scene took no prisoners and left an indelible impression of pain, misogyny and the obtuse self-righteousness of the powerful male. It was, in every sense of the word, magnificent.

The Shed space has been configured to suit the piece. It’s intimate and epic at the same time. Designer Bunny Christie provides a bright white staircase which immediately evokes the sense of nightclub life as well as the difficulty women have in ascending the ladder of society. Its presence highlights, in a very straightforward way, the inherent difficulty women have with high heels, a difficulty with which they deal endlessly. The lighting (Lucy Carter) is effective and moody, often as harsh as the subject matter.

Blurred Lines is one of the best things to play at the National Theatre in the last six years. It is a significant and provocative work of great sweep and scope.

Seriously, every man in the world should see it; teenagers should be made to see it before they can graduate or leave school. It should play for a long time and be seen everywhere there are theatres. It really is that important.

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