Consent is a new play by Nina Raine, who is best known for her play Tribes (though I’ve never seen any of her work). It’s the story of a group of friends, the majority of whom are lawyers, whose involvement in a particular rape case leads to their own lives becoming increasingly unstable.
When I purchased tickets to Consent I was sucked in by the its description of what sounded like a legal drama, exploring the complexities of a sexual assault case. However, what Raine is perhaps more concerned with is the idea of ‘truth’ more generally; and the play focuses instead on the marital woes of a group of people who I found generally deeply unlikeable. The first act, which focuses more on the trial itself, was really strong to me, particularly the way it ended (featuring an excellent performance from Heather Craney as the key witness in the trial). It did a really great job at throwing up the hypocrises present in the law around sexual assault, both in its written form, and in the views of those who are supposed to uphold it.
However, it was in act two that I began to have issues. This focused entirely on the idea of revenge and ’empathy’ and descending more into a war between Ed (Ben Chaplin) and Kitty (Anna Maxwell Martin) in a quite neat reversal of the first half’s marital struggles between Jake (Adam James) and Rachel (Priyanga Burford). However, I got increasingly uncomfortable with Raine’s use of sexual assault as a form of ‘truth’ which could be remembered differently, like some kind of marital argument, rather than a crime. This was especially the case when she seemed to start equating it to getting an abortion without your partner’s position or being unfaithful…when never of those two things are criminal acts.
Away from my problems with some of the script; I will say that the acting is generally pretty good, and Raine’s dialogue does frequently feel very natural. As well as Cowley’s great performance, Ben Chaplin is very good as the insufferable Ed; the sort of person who’d be a nightmare to be married to but is just so charismatic it’s hard not to want to pay attention to him. Pip Carter as the Crown Prosecutor Tim is also good, the scene where he and Chaplin explain legal techniques to Zara (Daisy Haggard) is a highlight. The only performance that felt overwrought was Anna Maxwell Martin’s, who was a very natural presence until she had to start getting angry and/or upset which is when she became a little too histrionic.
The play’s director Roger Michell says that he hopes that the play is provactive, and that they ‘get into trouble’ for this production. Whilst I will say that since I saw it on Monday I have been chewing over its content, I feel that Raine could have explored the issues she seemed most interested in (what does truth, empathy and revenge really mean), without using a crime that our justice system has a lousy track record of dealing will sensitively, as a tool for this.