Consent @ National Theatre: Sexual Politics on Acid

When the lights went down on the first scene of Consent at the preview I saw, all I could think was please don’t screw this up please don’t screw this up. Because the first scene was properly brilliant. I so didn’t want to be let down by the rest of the play.

Thankfully, I wasn’t. Nina Raine plants so many bombs under the surface of her play that there’s always one about to detonate. It’s a play that demands your concentration, not because its particularly complicated formally, but the relationships shift constantly, alliances forming, dissolving and reforming in the subtext, brought to life with some bloody good ensemble acting. It’s clever, witty, and shocking. Essentially, it’s about what happens when the abstract politics of the courtroom invades of those that work there, when two friends take opposing briefs in a rape case. But it’s really not about that. The play is far more interested in examining sexual politics, particularly male entitlement, in every manifestation, and it does so – brilliantly.

I did try and write this without spoiling, but I found I couldn’t talk about any of the politics without doing so. You have been warned.

*

Talking about an actual baby onstage seems flippant but it adds whole new tensions to the scene; there’s something quite subversive about an actual baby onstage anyway, let alone putting an actual baby onstage as the adults are discussing rape. “Me? Oh I’ve been raping pensioners… I tie them up, I fuck them, and I nick their stuff.” Claims Jake (Adam James,) and it does take a second to register that he hasn’t been raping pensioners, but his client has. They’re barristers, and they talk about their cases as if they are the clients themselves. Edward (Ben Chaplin) speaks some lines, quoting a text message “I’m going to suck you cock and wank you off…” directly to the baby. It’s deeply unsettling, but also funny. These are people with a black sense of humour so they can detach themselves from their work, it appears. The scene crackles with heat; the naturalistic text is constantly underscored with adlibbing, everyone talking on top of one another, never privileging a voice, an extra-textual idea that Roger Michell carries through his production.

Where they can laugh about work in the first scene, by the second there are no laughs at all. We see Tim (Pip Carter,) in conversation with a witness, Gayle (Heather Craney,) immediately before she gives evidence. She has been raped, and clearly has no idea what’s going on. Tim attempts to explain the process: he isn’t on “her side,” and she is there as a witness, not a victim. The ugliness of the process becomes exposed; it is for no one’s benefit but the man in the dock’s. Her shock unfurls into a description of exactly what happened to her, her memory retaining every detail. It’s in sharp contrast to the humour of the first scene. Even worse, is that Tim cannot listen. Even Gayle sharing this information with the barrister jeopardises the case. Gayle’s lack of agency in the process is hammered home repeatedly.

The law itself is examined shortly afterwards: “victims shouldn’t have a role in punishment… it becomes about vengeance” says Ed. “What’s wrong with a bit of vengeance?” his wife, Kitty (Anna Maxwell Martin) responds. Ed has this idea that the law is successful because it its totally impersonal. It goes beyond class and race and gender, and is thus impartial. ”Better a guilty man goes free than an innocent go to jail,” he says. “Why? Who decides that’s better?” is Gayle’s response. Even when Ed talks about work it’s removed; he can detach himself by setting up boundaries. Gayle smashes these boundaries when she discoverers where he lives and decides to pay him a visit. Law and life visibly collide for Ed, but they’ve been completely intertwined the entire time, we come to recognise. Time can invade space; in two mirroring occasions two conversations happen, Ed and Kitty moving between Jake and Rachel (Priyanga Burford) as the latter couple each give their perspectives. Who is interrogating who is always up for grabs. In this world, someone is always in the dock.

All the major characters are barristers, which makes them very good at arguing. Raine writes amazing dialogue, stuff that I imagine the cast are having a ball with. There’s a scene where Ed and Tim are apparently helping Zara (Daisy Haggard,) an actress, with research for a part in which she will play a barrister. The men end up cross examining each other; Tim thinks Ed is flirting, Ed is adamant he is not. Zara is made irrelevant. Male entitlement asserts itself in the arena. Everyone’s private life is up for scrutiny under their gaze; Tim has “pulled a girl,” who he later mentions was “dead to the world… we’d drunk a lot.” No comment from his friends. Even Zara declining another glass of wine is unacceptable, “She says no but she means yes,” jokes Ed. Consent, or lack thereof, is a constant in this play.

The female body is disputed territory. Right from the opening lines referring to the baby, “was he vaginal?” the female body is invoked, particularly as a place of male incomprehension. They talk about fictional women, women in drama, (quoting Helen McCrory?) reminding the men that they should be careful how they treat their women, one might turn out to be a goddess. The women agree that if Lear were played by a woman it would be about her hormones. There is a link between the actress and barrister; they both must empathise totally with their subjects(?) and then dismiss them from their minds. No shock then when Daisy says “Kitty says you were doing lots of rapes at the moment, which would be wonderful for me. Are there any I could watch?” Empathetic, yet disposable. You could argue that this is a necessary attitude to have to simply go to work in the morning, but there is something deeply shocking about the complete lack of sentiment.

We also shouldn’t be shocked then, that the men in question are just as capable of violence as their clients. The second act largely focuses on a marital rape, and it is at this point the characters of Ed and Kitty come forward as central. Kitty has slept with Tim, to get back at Ed who had an affair several years previously. The problem is, she’s fallen in love with him. Ed, who sees the world only in terms of what he possesses (his wife, his friend, his child, his cases…) is infuriated, and they end up having sex, only for it to be revealed in the next scene that she never gave her consent. In fact, she said “no” several times. And he ignored her. The laws he held in such high regard no seems likely to take his wife’s side, so he needs to “get technical.” He’s willing to make her seem mad in order to retain what he believes is his – namely the baby.

Anna Maxwell Martin has an ability to know exactly when an audience needs to hear every word of a line, and when they just need to follow the rhythm. In the scene where Kitty and Ed argue about taking the case to court in from of Rachel and Jake, she can slip from fury to dead calm instantaneously – you’re never quite sure what she’s going to do. And it’s not as though everyone’s on her side, although Jake thinks she has a case, Rachel argues that “calling that rape bankrupts the term rape.” They argue the legal specifics in front of Kitty, even as she is so assured in her truth. It’s also probably the first time the victim is of the same class as the barristers, Gayle is clearly working class, and Ed says he “hasn’t cried like this since prep school.” What could be alienated is no firmly in the domestic sphere. And there’s the fact that Ed can’t accept Kitty has had an abortion (“it’s my body I can do what I want with it.”) presumably because the baby is his. Ed sort of simmers during the scene, until the entrance of Tim lights the fuse, to such an extent that he seethes “She won’t give you a child, you fuck… If she does I’ll fucking kill it.” Chaplin plays it brilliantly, launching himself across the stage with the final threat, undermining any claim Ed makes to not being a threat.

In the final moments, when Ed finally says sorry (hitherto only able to say “I apologise”) you’re not sure if he’s sincere, or whether he is acknowledging his guilt, whether he’s even capable of accepting responsibility after a lifetime dismissing it from his body. Stability can’t be assured for anyone in the play by its end, and already we’ve forgotten Gayle, who’s ghostly reappearance at the end reminds us that actually, it’s really not about the perpetrator, no matter how much it may be framed that way.

*

Consent, in short, is a complicated, brutal, funny, political play given a production by Roger Michell that never gets in its own way, simply but effectively designed by Hildegard Bechtler, and beautifully acted by the company. It took me completely off guard, but it was no accident. It’s genuinely quite brilliant.

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