It may not be the intended takeaway but that was my main thinking point after watching Consent, Nina Raine’s new play currently on in the National’s Dorfman Theatre. It’s fantastically written, superbly acted and immaculately staged. Objectively, it does almost everything right. But I just didn’t connect with it. At all. And I really do wonder how much of that is because I cared 0% what happened to any of the characters.
Consent discusses depressingly pertinent issues to do with rape and women’s agency over their own bodies, something it does cleverly by both directly portraying and then subverting the legal form and language of the opposing arguments in a rape trial as put forward by two barristers who are, at least in theory, friends. With the trial as its initial catalyst, the play expands out to carry on exploring the issues by imposing them onto the clusterfuck home lives of the two barristers and their families. This structure - legal forms and norms used both in and out of context - works extremely well and allows Raine to make her overriding point without Consent ever disappearing into the realms of an issue play (although that is clearly what it is). For example, there’s a great sequence immediately after the actual court scene, where barrister Ed cross-examines a clearly traumatised victim, where Ed and wife Kitty ‘cross-examine’ their barrister friends Jake and Rachel whose marriage is in the process of falling apart using the same mannerisms, choreography and linguistic ticks. It’s subtle, but it totally works in making the point that discussions of consent should and do go far wider than the courtroom.
Raine’s writing is superb in dealing with what is, let’s face it, a pretty grim subject in an entertaining and provocative way. For my money, the humour is the highlight of the writing; punchy, biting, brutal, often black as pitch and with some top class swearing peppered in throughout. A favourite example comes when Ed, who seems to monopolise the best lines despite being the absolute worst, is railing against the man his wife is having an affair with and who believes his flat to be haunted: “opportunist prick, using a poltergeist as a wingman!” Raine is excellent too at putting lines and thoughts into characters’ mouths and minds in a way which subverts audience expectations. For example, and though I take issue with the idea that there is any debate to be had about it, it’s a pleasingly leftfield step to have Rachel taking Ed’s side and Jake taking Kitty’s in the question (it’s really not a question though) of the play’s second rape (that definitely is a rape): Ed’s of Kitty. (Seriously, there was a lot of chatter about this in the various cast and creative pre-opening interviews and how they all wanted the ‘did-he-didn’t-he’ discussions to be had. There is no discussion. He definitely rapes her; as Jake says in the play, it’s textbook marital rape.)
Now, this play is, as previously noted, staged in the Dorfman so you didn’t expect that you’d be aloud to leave without me having a pop about sightlines did you? And, as ever, they are a problem in this awful space. I know I’ve made the joke before, but Max Bialystock’s line from The Producers about “theatre in the square: nobody has a good seat” applies here once again. Like, I don’t mind spending an afternoon staring at the top of Ben Chaplin’s head, because he has excellent hair, but it doesn’t always help you understand what he’s doing as an actor. However, by Dorfman standards this play actually uses the space pretty well. It’s produced in the round (square) with the audience stacked up around the stage to add to the general atmosphere of conflict and adversarialness (clearly not a word but I’m going with it). The staging itself is pretty much nonexistent, with no scenery bar a few lights, minimal props and no soundtrack of any sort except occasional music to mask the change of scene. Combined with Roger Michell’s so-light-touch-as-to-feel-completely-absent direction, it provides the perfect platform for the writing and the acting to shine. To the extent you can see the latter, of course.
The acting is fab across the board, not least in its level of detail and subtlety (which rather reinforces the issues with sightlines). Special praise on that front to Ben Chaplin (more handsome in real life, Apple Tree Yard fans) who not only has excellent hair but, as Ed, also serves up a performance of supreme control and detail - the use of eye contact, hand gesture and body language is superb even without reading the programme note which highlights its importance to someone playing a barrister - whilst making sure that his 100% unsympathetic shit of a character stays completely plausible and never becomes a caricature. His wheedling, almost oddly singsong, delivery is a great piece of characterisation too. The reliably excellent Anna Maxwell Martin is, reliably, excellent as his wife Kitty, as is Adam James as human trashpile Jake, giving a performance that almost made me feel sympathy for him. Almost.
However, ultimately despite all the good things going for this production, I found it just too difficult to care about what happens to a group of six of the most awful human beings ever represented in drama (and one normal person, who commits suicide, which did make me sad). I sat and admired the play, but I never really got into it and, despite all of the above, couldn’t honestly say I liked it. Still, because I enjoy being complex and contrary, I do recommend it.
Consent plays in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until 17th May (though currently only the 11th May performace is not sold out).