Right, first out the gate – if rape and/or sexual violence is a trigger for you, I’d think very carefully about going to see Consent. This play follows a woman, (Heather Craney) who was raped and is seeking justice through the Courts, but the trauma in watching the injustice meted out to her is very real. This hurts. At times, this play really hurts.
Yet none of us need to watch a play to know that the gulf between the legal system and justice is profound. So, what, therefore, would convince us to watch a play about rape?
Well, for one, not making the play about rape. For though the marketing to Consent leads us to believe this is all about a trial, that isn’t actually the case. The trial is a sub-plot – an important, critical subplot – but not the main focus.
Instead, what this play actually centres around is the friendships, tangled love lives and domestic dramas of the two opposing Counsels in this case, and their circle of partners and friends. It’s all very the privileged middle and upper classes in the Notting Hill-esque set. A seemingly endless social scene of dinner parties, evening drinks, and expensive bottles of wine.
But what this play forces us to confront is that even though these two worlds seem miles apart – a working class woman in the dock versus the metropolitan elite – rape and the themes around it of truth, empathy and justice do not respect any class divide.
Indeed, the subject of class is woven cleverly throughout this play, from the status of the woman in the dock, to the mocking of their clients that forms the basis of so many of the jokes amongst the group of friends. But of course, what is going to happen is that all the arrogance, vanity and mocking from the rich is going to come back to haunt them.
But there is so much more here that Raine is examining in some of the finest new writing I’ve come across for a while. The very concept of truth is up for debate here. If there are at least two versions of the truth, then there is no universal factual account. If a woman’s (or man’s) behaviour can be criticised or justified by different viewpoints, then can anyone ever be blamed for anything? And is it a fact that only rape survivors can understand each other’s experience? And, if so, where does that leave human empathy?
And all of this is even before we get to victim’s justice and the human desire to make others hurt for hurting them.
But if all this seems heavy, please don’t be put off. This play is also unbelievably funny. I know, nothing I’ve said above would give any hint of that! But it is. Raine’s writing is so good, that humour is used brilliantly. Never inappropriately but always in dry observations of life and the way we behave.
And Raine keeps the audience on their toes throughout with surprising developments. Nothing here quite pans out the way you expect. As terrible events start to take over private lives as well as public, allegiances don’t break down as you’d think they would. The limits of empathy are thrown back in our faces and there are moments of real anguish as we bear witness to these friends berating and cross-examining each other behind closed doors, much as they were happy to do in public to a vulnerable woman none of them knew.
I have to say though, for all the humour, I was completely ripped apart by this production. I found it very emotionally affecting. There were moments where I felt real rage towards some of the characters, and moments where a couple of them broke my heart. We talk glibly about being moved by theatre but Consent really shook me.
This is a production of excellence throughout, however, not just in the writing. Each performance is superb, such as Anna Maxwell Martin as the wife whose love for her husband, Ben Chaplin, is fading as fast as his ego is inflating. And I always love watching Adam James, and here his charisma is perfectly employed as a man who thinks he can have his cake and eat it without there ever being consequences to that.
But it is Heather Craney as the raped woman, Gayle, that takes your breath away. It is heart-breaking to watch her courage and bravery unravel under the needling of cross-examination, and the moments where she shakes with anger and hurt will bring tears to your eyes.
Roger Michell’s direction keeps the production moving swiftly forward but there is so much in Raine’s writing that I could talk about it for hours. It is so richly layered and so deftly examined, full of subtlety. There is so much here on the lot of women, the sexist structures of our Courts, the themes of punishment and retribution – in private lives as well as in public – and how events from the past never leave us, but consideration too on how some can move on from these ghosts but others never will.
An extraordinary production that cut me to the core.
National Theatre, London, to May 17, 2017.
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Sarah Lee.