“Errybody get up” – the innocuously phatic opening of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines might not seem the sort of line that would launch the most controversial song of the decade. It could just as easily kick off Ignition, Be Faithful; any Jäger-infused sweat-drenched R&B party jam you care to mention. Instead, it took the phenomenally complex and problematic landscape of contemporary gender politics, and gave it something big enough to tear its ass in two. Within months, the song was banned by twenty student unions and took academic arguments about feminism, racism, and pop culture to the top of the mainstream agenda.
In Carrie Cracknell’s 70 minute blast of sketches and scenes, inspired by Kat Banyard’s book The Equality Illusion, an all-female cast attempts to sort through the cultural wreckage. The eight actresses form a cross-section of ages, races and backgrounds, their jeans-and-t-shirt civvies juxtaposed with Bunny Christie’s vertiginous neon plastic set, straight out of the MTV Music Video Awards. It’s the sort of contrast on which this production thrives – the gaudy plasticity of pop-culture soft porn, versus the wearisome, casually violent reality of the misogyny it promotes. In one of the most striking moments, we are treated to an all-singing, all-dancing performance of a misogynistic medley, recapping such hits as The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up and Tammy Wynette’s Don’t Liberate Me (Love Me). But incorporated into the gyrating choreography are flashes of jarring violence. The music stops, there is a shrieking cry for help from a contorted body – but before we know it, we’re back listening to Lee Harvey rapping about how “chicks’ panties drop quick”.
The visual punch is matched by Nick Payne’s extraordinarily well-crafted and subtle writing – he is a master of the nuances of speech, and the longer dialogic sketches are flawless. In one, a cheating husband’s attempts to justify his use of prostitutes to his wife are creepy, then chilling, then vomit-inducing – all the more so because of their pitch-perfect realism. Far and away the strongest scene (in itself worth the ticket price) is an exquisitely well observed parody of a post-show Cast and Creative Q&A. Winking a wicked eye at the NT’s own Platform events, an arrogant director explains the “creative journey” of his play, sidelining his helpless female lead, who is left unable to take responsibility for the sexual objectification of her character. Marion Bailey as the director nails every pretentious luvvie mannerism – the target of the satire is anonymised, but not quite carefully enough to avoid a few mischievous guesses as to his identity as he tosses his luxurious brown locks. The more abstract sequences are less strong – at worst, they have a touch of the A-Level drama game to them, devised sketches that should have been fleshed out and problematised. The same goes for the lame and unnecessary fourth wall-breaking humour, with the actresses onstage bickering over who is to play which part. All of which makes us wonder whether the sketch format is insufficient for tackling the titanic convolution of the subject matter. The form is well-executed, but the content lacks scope. Ultimately, it’s easy to laugh at Rupert Goold’s swaggering pretension, but it’s not as funny when you’re delivering an underpowered version of his dramatic vision. I can’t help wondering whether this play would have benefitted from the scale, ambition and strident confidence of ENRON or Earthquakes in London. Without them it is interesting, but insubstantial.