I almost shouted with glee during the first few minutes of Carrie Cracknell’s new feminist piece, Blurred Lines, at the National Theatre Shed.
The eight actresses give a deadpan list, in turn, of typical casting ‘boxes’ into which they could expect to be put. “Black hoodlum”, said Michaela Coel. “Old, but fuckable”, said Claire Skinner. “Gareth’s mum”, “Nigel’s wife”, “Tom’s girlfriend”, “John’s secretary”. “Rape victim,” “victim of hate crime,” “victim of war.” These reductive types form a huge portion of the roles available to actresses, as documented in a recent article in The Telegraph for which I was interviewed, and so it is glorious to see this issue in the limelight on a National Theatre stage.
The production’s ability to catch and express a multitude of such daily examples of sexism is its most impressive achievement. Part of the problem that feminism has faced is that sexism is insidious, and often impossible to describe or back up with concrete example: it’s a culture. So when the actresses perform a scenario in which a new mother is told that her workload will be reduced, because the baby-sick stain on her back clearly speaks of having “too many plates to spin”, it feels joyous to see the insinuating tones of voice and implied assumptions, which many women face at work, perfectly expressed in drama.
Another favourite moment is a slightly naughty skit (given the possible references to the National Theatre itself, with its poor record of gender equality) in which two actresses play a director and his leading actress. He naturally dominates the interview, talking expansively and academically, while his actress’s answers are short and shy, and constantly refer back to ‘him’. When challenged to give a reason for the actress being in her underwear during a violent scene, the director is vague and evasive. Everyday sexism is almost impossible to pin down, but this production manages not only to catch it, but to stage it.
The production is an interesting collage of skits, pieces and verbal storytelling. There are songs, such as ‘Don’t Liberate Me, Just Love Me’, alongside echoes of lyrics from songs such as Lady Gaga’s “do what you want with my body” and N.E.R.D’s “Ooh baby you want me? Well you can get this lapdance here for free.” There are also frequent images of sexualised and violated female bodies and orgasmic female voices. All of this comes together to form a clever impression of the constant, ubiquitous backdrop of female objectification, against which modern culture exists.
These individual pieces are intelligent, funny, moving and well put together, but inevitably the show still feels a little as though it lacks a dramatic arc. It is also a relatively short production at 70 minutes, and my first thought as the actors returned for the curtain call was, “but there’s so much more to talk about!” Of course, it would probably take an epic to cover all the many problems that women face in modern society, so the production has set itself an impossible challenge. But Cracknell’s direction, the excellent writing from Nick Payne and the frank, natural performances from the actresses, form an incredibly encouraging start to what will hopefully be a long conversation on this subject in the theatre.
Blurred Lines is playing at the NT Shed, National Theatre until 22 February. For more information and tickets, see the NT Shed website.