CONSENT – National Theatre

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National Theatre, London – until 17 May 2017

When a topic is painfully current and theatre plunges in, the heart does not always sing with optimism. But Nina Raine is an old hand, and knows how to make a play work without a virtuous political clunking. Acid-sharp, observant and pitiless this one is as much about normally ghastly marital behaviour as about the drunken-rape case and trial which flashes, with fierce drama, through its core.

We meet two affluent couples, bantering cheerfully: Ben Chaplin’s saturnine lawyer Ed and his wife Kitty with her new baby – Anna Maxwell Martin, strung like a neurotic violin. Their older friends Jake and Rachel are Adam James and Priyanga Burford, showing signs of irritation which foreshadow news of their furious separation. Adam James is a delight, entrusted with most of the really barkingly funny lines in the play but also emotionally woundable and redeemable when his sins are discovered. They have another friend, singleton Tim (a morosely misfittish Pip Carter ) who they are trying to set up with Kitty’s friend, the foxy, baby-hungry fringe actress Zara. That is a splendid turn from Daisy Haggard, both in initial breeziness and finally a magnificent, angry rage.

The marital shenanigans do tend towards the category of first-world-yuppie-problems, of which one can tire. Anna Maxwell Martin in particular is given a character so infuriating yet pitiable that empathy stalls. But the point is that Tim and Ed are both barristers, and the heart of the play is about the muddle of emotion and misperception out of which the chilly law must draw conclusions. In one electric scene they snipe at one another while illustrating tricks of advocacy – ask closed questions, make statements disguised as inquiries, leave tense pauses, “repeat their answers slowly, like they’ve fucked up”.

It is, to them, a game: but they are legal opponents in briefly-glimpsed court sequences of a squalid case in which Gayle – Heather Craney – was raped on the night of her sister’s funeral and didn’t dare report it straight away. Her own drinking and sexual habits are plumbed humiliatingly in evidence, while the alleged rapist’s violent history was “inadmissible”. It is cruelly and sharply done, with no acknowledgement that she would probably have had a victim-supporter with her in a shockingly cold first meeting with the Crown prosecutor; Craney gives Gayle a powerful wounded dignity. Indeed by the end of the lengthy first act, growing rather more fascinated by the trapdoors through which furniture kept rising and falling than with the couples’ bickering, I started to think that the play might be as much about class as about law and sexual consent. Cransey’s irruption into the comfortable home where the stoned, tipsy gang convene for Christmas, and where she sees that the warring barristers “are mates!” has a real shiver of Nemesis.

In the second, short and electrically furious act it would take more than trapdoors to distract anyone. Jake and Rachel have forgiven the infidelities, and trouble now focuses on resentful sullen Kitty (“I split myself in two for you and that fucking baby!”) and her attempt to get even for a five-year-old infidelity. It is a passionate half-hour, the two men far more emotionally and brilliantly intense about threats to their marriage and children than we usually see onstage. A nice detail is that the most absurd and painful rows take place with all four on tiny nursery chairs, reduced to sobbing toddlerhood, accusing each other of being mad.

Another rape accusation surfaces; the cool rational lawyer Ed is sobbing helplessly, and Kitty wails “You can’t legislate for human behaviour”, though actually you can . Common sense speaks at last through the most unlikely shaman of them all, ditzy Zara: “Sorry? Sorry for yourself. Stop saying sorry, and be a nicer fucking person!!”. I’d have happily ended on that line, but Raine kindly affords us a small, undeserved redemptive moment.

There is, by the way, a wonderfully funny observation about rape as a tool of anger. When one wife is unfaithful and threatens to take the child, the instinct of her husband is towards sex. In the other case, he certainly doesn’t want sex but “to kill her” , and petulantly stamps on her foot. I found that oddly hopeful.

Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.