National Theatre, London – until 17 May 2017
“Of course I have disposable income, I rent in Zone 4.”
It’s black and white – no means no. That should be enough right? Except all too often, sadly it isn’t, and the many different ways in which this is true form the bedrock of Consent, Nina Raine‘s new play for the National Theatre, co-produced with Out of Joint. From the multitude of ways in which consent can be exploited by the legal profession in the public sphere, to the brutal, personal intimacy of how it impacts on a disintegrating marriage, Raine plays interestingly and intelligently with shades of grey.
Barristers Ed and Tim are on opposing sides of a rape case and there’s little love lost between them personally either, as the perennially single Tim is a long-term friend of his wife Kitty, who is trying to set him up with another pal, actress Zara (played by the wonderful Daisy Haggard). And as Ed and Tim do battle around the finer points of Gayle’s case – she alleges she was raped on the day of her sister’s funeral – with their focus on legally outmanoeuvring the other rather than on the victim, a twist that puts all their private lives under the microscope shifts their perspective entirely.
Raine’s ease with the archness of slippery legalese is magnificent and finds its apogee in a deftly constructed scene of personal animosity and sexual jealousies being played out under the guise of explaining various strategies in the modern lawyer’s playbook. Ben Chaplin’s arrogant Ed and Pip Carter’s deceptively placid Tim ratchet up the tension well, but it is when Ed and Anna Maxwell Martin’s superbly restless Kitty’s imploding marriage becomes the focus of the play that the full complexities of its issues hit home.
S with director Roger Michell carefully steering his characters through Hildegard Bechtler’s slickly confrontational design, we see the struggle between what is rational and what is empathetic, what is justice and what is fair, not only in court but in life. Does consent even really exist in the way we assume it does? It is weighty stuff, but cleverly balanced with a rich vein of dark humour, often delivered by Adam James and Priyanga Burford as Ed and Kitty’s friends – both lawyers and also a complicated couple.
With its focus firmly on the upper middle classes, Raine’s plotting does feel a little contrived, especially given that Heather Craney’s deeply humane Gayle is reduced to an overtly working-class plot device of a role, who improbably forces her way back into the action solely to provide a dramatic turning point for the other characters. But there’s much to enjoy in the intricate thought-patterns of a play that is unafraid to ask bold questions about what justice and forgiveness really mean.