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En route home from Blurred Lines in the National Theatre Shed, I flicked through the evening paper. There was a report on the Lord Rennard affair, in which a senior Liberal Democrat has been accused of sexual harassing female party activists; an interview with female City workers, furious about UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage’s comments about women who take time off to have children being “worth less” to employers; a snippet about girls being less likely to pursue careers in science. When it comes to tackling gender politics and sexual inequality, where do you start?
That is the dilemma faced by playwright Nick Payne and director Carrie Cracknell in this collaborative new piece (which takes its title from last year’s controversial and creepy summer hit by Robin Thicke). They and the eight-strong all-female cast go about it with snap and wit, creating a collage of short scenes that tackle domestic violence, workplace inequality, date rape and pornography – all set against a backdrop of tiny revealing details about the insidious portrayal of women in popular culture.
Each scene is delivered in a non-naturalistic style, so sidestepping the problem that depiction itself can end up being exploitative or titillating – indeed a final scene tackles this problem head-on. And this, together with the fact that male characters are voiced by women, sharpens the focus. But there is a problem with the format, in that each of the issues touched on here could make a serious and complex play: take a conversation between a husband and wife, for example, during which he tries to justify his use of prostitutes. Blurred Lines highlights the issue, but can’t get further than that, so the treatment feels cursory. Spreading the net so wide conveys the scale of casual sexism and misogyny, but it also has a limiting effect.
The company was not granted permission to perform Thicke’s song, but they do sing various other disturbing numbers – The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”, Tammy Wynette’s “Don’t Liberate Me”, Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want”. The ensemble – Marion Bailey, Lorna Brown, Michaela Coel, Bryony Hannah, Sinéad Matthews, Ruth Sheen, Claire Skinner and Susannah Wise – is excellent, switching role, style and mood in a second, all the while scaling and descending Bunny Christie’s symbolic, steep translucent staircase. It’s great to tackle this subject at the National, but this feels like an opening gambit, rather than a full investigation.