Decouple any romantic notion of sex as being
the physical demonstration of love and what is it other than just an act to
satiate a desire for power, ownership, closeness, or to make babies? And if the
parties involved are expecting different things from the outset, does that make
either better or worse? In Nina Raine’s new play
There are echoes of the groupings in Cold Feet or Friends – people you either aspire to be or aspire to punch
Knowingly thought-provoking, if occasionally a little smug at its own intelligence, Consent is one of those issue-laden pieces that seems to have been created to fill the silence whilst serving amuse-bouche at the Islington dinner party later, as it raises contentions it never resolves. But there's a sense that Raine is knowingly playing with this middle-class pretention, reflecting it in the way her six main characters (lawyers, barristers, actors – in essence all masters at using delivery to gain power) debate, fight, flirt and cheat... usually whilst sharing a Chablis and a joint. There are echoes of the groupings in Cold Feet or Friends – people you either aspire to be or aspire to punch depending just how important the London Zone in which you live is to you (and yes, this is very London centric; I’m not sure the laughter over a mention of Enfield will really carry elsewhere).
The actual rape trial that one may assume is central to the play – highlighting the games that the legal system uses in order to win rather than ascertain guilt or innocence – is actually a mere backdrop on which to illustrate the characters’ own views and what they see as acceptable discussions in society. Being used this way makes the scenes with the victim surprisingly unemotional given the subject matter and the expectations of their impact on the plot never materialises. Indeed they spark much interval debate about who may have done what but that misses the point that this is more polemic than plot. If you’re expecting a soap-style whodunit, then you will be disappointed.
The fun to be had here is in the tricks that Raine has put into her text – although there is so much at play that it can become rather exhausting. The protagonists have discussions on the possible subtext of the previous scenes (to help us or laugh at us for doing the same?). They recontextualise language to jar our recognition (such as when passing the wine, “she says no, she means yes” seemingly unaware of the link to the rape case discussed moments earlier). They talk of the structure of a Greek tragedy (“it’s just two versions of the truth being debated by the middle classes”) whilst the play clearly could be defined in the same manner. And they seem to unknowingly assign a high status to rapists themselves (when discussing an accusation of rape, they compare to another man’s action of “just stamping on my foot…like a 12-year old girl” – the implication being that “real men rape”). I’m sure I’ve missed some and it’s unarguably clever stuff, but does it all really need to be in the one play?
It’s clear that the cast get this – even if we can’t be expected to keep up – and they are all extraordinarily strong in showing and hiding the chinks in their selves no matter how light or dark the debate at hand. Ben Chaplin as supremely confident but emotionally cold Edward, and Anna Maxwell Martin as his seemingly chilled but potentially broken wife Kitty are particularly mesmerising as they go from louche to explosive to distraught (and not in a linear way) with complete belief. With nowhere to hide on a simple grey platform stage played in the round, it is this belief they all demonstrate in what they say – even when they don’t seem to know what it is they are really showing by what they say – that makes the play and will likely make you not realise for a while what you have just heard.
If you thought you were going to laugh at references to rape, then you may question your own beliefs. But you will laugh – not because jokes are being told but because they have managed to disarm you into what you think is acceptable. And then there will be a beat or two as you reflect on what that actually means and says about society – it’s a clever trick that I think has more impact than telling you what is right or wrong or really showing the impact. The negative here is that the very short second act rather fizzles out like a damp squib as many a thought-provoking piece can when no conclusions are being drawn. It’s smart, fun and challenging and feels very resonant of a middle-class Londoner right now, even if that includes being a Londoner that is so keen to show others how clever it is that you worry the sex in discussion may never feel as good for them as their very own masturbation.