The title of a play may not seem that significant but often it is the first indicator of what your work is about, and long before a potential viewer reads the synopsis or even buys a ticket it has to peak their interest. Consider, how much more important that becomes when your play is about issues as complex as rape and consent which may already be a difficult topic for audiences to witness on stage. However incendiary the viewpoints discussed in the play, not only does its descriptive language need to be respectful of real experience but a title should be a signal of what to expect.
So the National Theatre’s new play by Nine Raine promises much and Consent is a fantastic title that intriguingly gives nothing away about the plot, but all the while signifying a potentially mind-expanding and stimulating night of debate. Surprising then that the play itself is barely about consent at all but it is a play about the anxiety of middle class marriage… sorry that should be another play about the anxiety of middle class marriage, in which rape is used as a backdrop to other stories and eventually as a tool in a custody battle.
I was genuinely surprised that the critics loved this play so much and saw its approach to the issue of consent as ‘genuinely bruising’ (Time Out) and ‘funny, pointed and complex’ (WhatsOnStage), with only Natasha Tripney in The Stage having some reservations about Raine’s approach – ‘the woman who was raped’ is ‘little more than a dramatic catalyst…It’s a tired, tedious device’. Deservedly, most of their praise is reserved for the writing, the humour and the performances all of which are unarguably excellent and engaging, and under any other title this would be a barbed examination of human behaviour, what it is not is a play that’s really about consent. It’s a good story but it doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do, as fellow theatregoer remarked, it’s actually “a bit lightweight”.
The play opens in the middle class living room of Ed and Kitty, he’s a respected barrister and she is a new mum, and their lawyer friends Jake and Rachel, also parents, have come to see the new baby, along with actress pal Zara. Soon it transpires that Jake has cheated on Rachel and she throws him out which leads to much too-ing and froing over whether to take him back. Meanwhile Ed takes on the defendant in a rape case – against his old rival Tim – and is shown grilling the victim and casting aspersions on her sexual history to win the case. Using this as a trigger, his coldness starts to seep into his own marriage much to Kitty’s frustration who looks for solace elsewhere. As the various couples attempt to figure out who and what they want, an accusation of marital rape from within the group shakes their complacency.
Raine’s writing is interesting, funny and evocative of a particular kind of existence, and although her characters are classic middle class people drinking wine on expensive sofas, there is clearly depth and purpose to her writing that makes them more than caricatures. But 85-90% of this drama is about who’s sleeping with who, and it is only Raine’s set of slightly unlikeable but interesting characters with plenty of depth that prevents Consent from being a borderline soap opera. And this is a group of people who like to hurt each other, sometimes unwittingly but often with the full knowledge of what they’re doing which does make for some entertaining theatre, but it doesn’t really need a shoe-horned rape storyline to achieve that.
After years of seeing rape as frequent short-hand for violence against women, particularly in sensationalist crime dramas with extremely psychotic serial killers, more recently television writers have gone to considerable lengths to depict the traumatic and procedural aftermath as well as the long-term impact on the individual and her family. Eastenders, Apple Tree Yard and Broadchurch have been singled out for praise for their sensitive handling of the complexity of rape cases and the vagaries of the justice system that seem stacked against a complainant. A few scenes of Raine’s play attempt to explore a similar area, shedding light on the way the victim’s life is “attacked” while the perpetrator is better protected by regulation.
Three key scenes are presented in the play; first showing lawyer Tim seeing Gayle moments before giving her statement in court, the two have never met before and he refuses to listen to her side of the story – she is a witness in the crown case and has no legal representation of her own and cannot jeopardise his impartiality by telling him too much. No one has explained this to her and her distress is evident. In a second scene (after more marital hoo-ha in middle England), Ed cross-questions Gail in court, drawing attention to her promiscuous past, trying to trip her up and turning her testimony against her.
It’s brutal stuff and Heather Craney’s performance reveals Gayle’s desperation, confusion and bewilderment well, but we’re not supposed to be focusing on her, all of this is designed to make us think about Ed. Ditto when Gayle unexpectedly, and rather improbably, turns up on their doorstep to cast gloom on their lovely boozy Christmas party, she is made to look hysterical and perhaps as mad as Ed has painted her in court, none of which does any service to rape survivors, but the consequences for her aren’t important, we need to think about Ed’s marriage. And Gayle’s character is then brutally cast aside, her work done as a device for act one.
Ben Chaplin is really such an excellent actor and, although he is too rarely seen on the British stage or TV, his performance as Ed is one of the things worth staying for. We discover early on that he previously cheated on Kitty, something she doesn’t think he is sufficiently sorry for all these years later, and his complacency makes him a difficult man to like. His prosecution of the rape case is used to show us his lack of empathy and his adherence to enshrined principles of the law, rather than what is true justice, all of which he brings back into his marriage and drives the plot. But somehow you feel for him, a man who believes he atoned for his crime and lived honestly since, but still on the naughty step and later in the play when it all comes crashing down, Chaplin elicits genuine empathy for his plight.
The other characters don’t fare so well despite uniformly excellent performances, and besides poor Gayle, the other female roles are almost equally two dimensional, often actually hysterical. Priyanga Burford’s Rachel is that wonderful modern double-bluff that tries to make a female character look more important than she is. On the surface, she is a lawyer too, she gets involved in the wranglings the men have about techniques to redirect a witness and calls them out when they do it at home, so she must be a properly written modern woman right? Wrong, all we actually see her do is worry about her children and whether her husband loves her – she’s a sheep in feminist clothing, trapped in her domestic sphere.
Similarly, Zara (Daisy Haggard) is the free-spirited member of the group who doesn’t quite fit in with the others. She’s out there working as an actress, single and living a very different life. But being in her mid-30s what can she possibly want for the future – an Oscar, an Olivier and a penthouse on the Riviera? Nope she wants a husband and a baby, so her only storyline is to be set-up with dull lawyer Tim and be accused of sleeping with Ed. For Rachel and Zara careers mean nothing unless you have a man to rely on.
And so to Kitty played with care and emotional insight by Anna Maxwell Martin but who still only manages to exist within the confines of men and her child. It’s never made clear whether Kitty is a stay-at-home mum, is on maternity leave or has given up some kind of career to care for her child, but Maxwell Martin conveys her boredom and frustration really well. The lingering resentment of her husband’s infidelity is carried like a stone inside her and we see what tips her over the edge. The problem is once she’s there it becomes rather hysterical and self-justifying in a way that’s difficult to empathise with considering the damage she does is equal to Ed’s.
The men feel a little more rounded, but then cads and bounders always do. The loathsome Jake openly cheats on his wife and barely sees the problem which Adam James delivers with punch, but, again a fine actor, James makes him convincing, especially in giving way to his emotion at the possibility of losing his family, seeking repentance. This is the crucial difference in the way these characters are written, the men get to be flawed and sorry, subtly giving vent to their conflict and being redeemed, while the women scream, shout and behave irrationally, before taking back their cheating partners.
Finally, the issue of marital rape is arguably the most controversial aspect of this show, and yet none of the critics have had any concerns about the way it is portrayed. We only see the aftermath in which the characters involved discuss their actions, one surprised to learn it’s being now described as rape, thinking he had non-verbal consent, while the other insisting it was. Only here in maybe two scenes does the play really start to unpick the blurred lines of actually giving consent to any acts between two people.
Frustratingly, this is muddied by the idea of a custody battle, and it’s revealed that the act is described as rape only after the husband has threatened to remove the wife’s access to the child. The implication is clear that regardless of what happened, she is using the idea of rape to guarantee sole custody and when told that it will have no bearing on the decision (again a shocking insight into the justice system) the allegation is left unpursued. There is an ambiguity over what happened but after seeing Gayle’s story, to use rape as plot device to fulfil other motives feels dishonest, disingenuous and irresponsible.
It may seem a little thing but the title of a play can matter so much, and in the case of Consent it seems the audience is being mis-sold a story about the pitfalls of long relationships and the hurt people cause each other. On its own, Raine’s play is interesting with detailed observation of the way people interact with one another but it’s not really about consent. And while I may have missed something everyone else has taken from it, its approach to portraying the consequences of rape could have been considerable more inciteful than this production allows it to be.
Consent is at the National Theatre until 17 May. Currently available tickets start at £50 but it is part of the Friday Rush scheme offering tickets for £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1