Consent at the National Theatre
In Consent, Nina Raine has somehow taken the various legal arguments around the titular topic and woven them into a fiercely, shockingly funny narrative, one that manages to avoid the numerous landmines that lurk in such a sensitive area. Through multiple marital collapses, the playwright also dissects the role of empathy in judgement and the balance between apology and punishment.
One of the more controversial aspects of Consent is the way it backgrounds the rape case two of the characters work on. That is because the piece is arguably more about rape culture than rape itself, with the playwright showing the insidious and harmful language used to describe the topic and its victims, and how this can warp the simple idea of consent. Raine is fastidious in the way she cross examines the issue, especially from a male perspective, choosing to present two of the most contested examples of sexual assault: one involving alcohol, the other marriage.
She further complicates this by adding class to the mix. Using a bit of post dinner chat, Raine positions her play within a Greek lineage, one where (well-educated) gods come down and pass judgement. For what are these barristers if not hand-selected higher powers; as Edward says, “we’re not them”. The most chilling scene sees this cosseted world punctured at the end of act one, a mortal ascending to this middle-class Mount Olympus to pour scorn on her “betters”. It would be triumphant if it didn’t come under such utterly tragic circumstances.
Thankfully given the complexity of the subject matter, the set is pretty simple. Various items of furniture rise from the floor to denote a parade of bourgeois abodes, while above the stage an Ikea’s worth of fancy lighting fixtures fight for supremacy. It’s all very chic and unfussy, designer Hildegard Bechtler and director Roger Mitchell clearing the way for the legalistic fireworks.
And that’s a good thing, as the ensemble is astonishing. Ben Chaplin’s Ed is the odious, dispassionate voice of the law; Jake is the kind of smarmy but charming bastard Adam James excels at; Pip Carter is Tim, nice but not so dim; and Priyanga Burford and Daisy Haggard both get to show off their ample wit and rage as Zara and Rachel respectively.
Yet the best performances belong to Anna Maxwell Martin and Heather Craney. The former’s remarkably expressive face is put to fantastic use as Kitty traverses a wide emotional landscape. The latter, meanwhile, may have the smallest part, but she makes an indelible impression as Gayle, a woman going through unimaginable pain in a system that suffocates the suffering with pedantic logic.
Photo: Sarah Lee
Consent is at the National Theatre from 28th March until 17th May 2017, for further information or to book a visit here.