After a successful run in 2017 at the National Theatre, Nina Raine’s topical play ‘Consent’ transfers to the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre. Directed by Roger Michell, this timely production explores modern-day attitudes to rape – with a particular focus on the legal technicalities of dealing with a rape case in court, and how this differs from the common man’s more empathetic view – morality, legality, and the very notion of justice itself.
Revolving around the legal case of rape victim Gayle, friends take opposing briefs in court. As the case seems to spill out into their own lives, however, relationships begin to unravel, threatening to destroy the lives, the marriages of those who, numb to the pain of human misery, and consequently lacking in empathy, corrupted by a vocation which compels them to lie, themselves fall victim to injustice.
Rifts between friends and spouses are exploited, until these lawyers, people charged with upholding and defending the law, themselves begin to act unlawfully, using their vocation, from a position of privilege and status, as a weapon to argue their way out, detaching themselves from their actions, crossing a line in doing so.
A very honest piece of theatre, ‘Consent’ boldly examines the all-too-often dishonest and dispassionate law – its lack of feeling, of understanding, and of empathy – and of those charged with exacting it.
This is a play that explores the margins between right and wrong, morality and immorality, innocence and guilt, and justice and injustice, and suggests that, in a legal sense, given certain ‘technicalities’, it is easier to slip between the two than one might think.
The small cast is particularly strong across the board, each giving noteworthy performances in their own right, and it’s a pleasure to see a group of such talented, experienced actors come together to create a piece which provides an acting masterclass. Their experience certainly presents itself in their naturalism – each actor seems very much at home on the stage, important given the necessary naturalism required in Raine’s play. They do indeed appear as a group of old friends, comfortable in each other’s company, willing to share the highs and lows of their marriages, etc, with each other.
Edward, acting as barrister for the defence against Gayle, is expertly played by Stephen Campbell Moore. He certainly had that air of detachment about him, numbed, senseless, as a result of having to defend criminals, and prosecute innocent parties. Unfeeling, he remains rational for the majority of the play, calculating, explaining away his actions by drawing on the skills he would employ in a courtroom. Opposite his wife Kitty, brilliantly played by Katie Wimpenny, it often appears as though Ed is putting her on trial, using his courtroom tactics to cross examine his wife, distrusting, despite himself having committed an indiscretion five years earlier. Wimpenny’s Kitty proves almost a foil to him – a new mother, she displays understanding and empathy, a very human character, contrasting Ed’s sometimes inhuman nature, yet is quick to turn Ed’s tactics on him when appropriate.
Adam James and and Sian Clifford, as husband and wife Jake and Rachel, also lawyers, excel. After experiencing a rocky patch in their marriage, the two are ultimately reconciled, and themselves attempt to help Ed and Kitty navigate the stormy waters of their relationship. James’ Jake is not too dissimilar to Ed, and employs legal tactics in a bid to explain his behaviour. A serial adulterer, he claims that his extramarital affairs add spice to his marriage to Rachel, which is failing at the play’s opening. A smooth-talker, he acts with a considerable charm and, despite his character’s behaviour, one cannot help but be drawn in by his smooth confidence. Both James and Clifford together actually make for a believable, modern day couple – the husband, cheating on his wife, said wife kicking him out, only for the two to be reconciled shortly after – until the next time, that is. Once a cheater, and all that…
Lee Ingleby plays a very interesting character in friend Tim, acting as prosecutor of the man who allegedly raped Gayle. Although similar in many ways to Ed and Jake, his character does appear to have more of a humanness to it. Although bound by his job in law, it does appear as though he has somewhat more of a conscience than the other two and though, happy to play along in using legal tactics in conversation, it seems as though he feels for victim Gayle. When he first meets her, she tries to tell him exactly what happened and, though he seems to want to listen, to want to believe her, he is forced to detach himself, and states that, by law, he cannot listen, cannot help at this point, as it will appear as though he is helping her practice for the court, which is not allowed. So, sometimes the outsider of his little group, who occasionally make derogatory remarks concerning his appearance, his smell, etc, he appears a somewhat conflicted character – he knows what is right, yet is bound by law to act a certain way, even if he feels this is wrong. Ultimately, however, he too gives in to temptation, which leads him to commit an unlawful act.
Clare Foster‘s Zara is like a breath of fresh air amongst these calculating, rational beings. An actress preparing to star in a legal drama, she takes advantage of the vocation of her friends, receiving tips on how to talk, act, stand, etc. Bubbly and spirited, she appears as a nice contrast to the other characters, showing emotion, and questioning their lack of.
Heather Craney seems to represent the common man in her portrayal of rape victim Gayle. The most human character, it is she who defends truth, and attacks the legal justice system. She who cannot see the reason in an unreasonable law. She who speaks out against injustice. She who stands for true justice.
A working class character, Gayle is worlds away from our lawyers, who consistently fail to understand her suffering. Emotional and feeling, she seems to have a better grasp of the ideal of true justice, than any of the other characters, and it is through her that Raine is able to cleverly attack the justice system of today, daring to ask those questions, to put forth those opinions, that are asked and shared by many. Despite the character’s background, it can be argued that she is the most intelligent character, intelligent in the sense that she truly understands the meaning of justice, and tries to make sense of all the injustice in the world, revealing truths that the other characters dare not speak. The way she is so badly affected by how the law has treated her, as the innocent party, suggests that the law does not represent, does not stand for, the common man – although the courts may achieve their desired verdict, this actually means so little for the victim, who stand to gain nothing. Focusing only on cold, hard fact, the technicalities surrounding a case, it appears as though the law priorities the punishment of the guilty, but does little in the way of compensating, protecting even, the innocent.
In a play that questions this unjust justice, it’s suggested that the justice defined in law is actually so very different from the common man’s innate sense of justice, and so often leaves innocent parties feeling short-changed. It’s no wonder it is often said that ‘the law is an ass’.
Each actor gives an engaging performance and, like lawyers, they each present their version of events, trying to convince the audience to take their side, to let them off, to declare them innocent. The audience themselves try to remain rational, to remain impartial and, as we watch events unfold, we ourselves begin thinking like lawyers, cross-examining these characters, and making judgements accordingly as we hope for an ending that will see true justice prevail.
During the production, particularly during those fast-paced scenes in which two characters are alone on stage, it feels as though we are watching a high-stakes tennis game, or a boxing match. The blows exchanged between prosecution and defence cause the audience to look back and forth, to and fro, between the characters, as question and answer coated in legal diction is bandied about, resulting in a verbal sparring, a warring, between these two opposing sides, one for, and one against. Most notable in Ed’s questioning of Gayle, the pace quickens, and the audience look frantically between the two as Ed throws verbal punches at Gayle, pressing her until there appears no way out, and she squirms in the dock, trying to defend herself, before mustering her strength and fighting back with that all she has.
The play explores the idea that people cannot fully comprehend a thing until it has happened to them personally. After learning that Ed had cheated on wife Kitty wife years ago, we are led to believe that she has forgiven him. However, when she later proves unfaithful to him, only then does he truly understand what his wife went through, how she felt, those five years ago. The play therefore questions whether we can truly relate, whether we can genuinely show empathy, to a person, if this is the case, perhaps suggesting why these lawyers fail to understand the suffering of Gayle – they simply cannot relate. The production suggests that, when a thing happens to another, it is easier for us to remain rational, having that sense of detachment, that allows us to cope. It isn’t until we experience said thing ourselves, that we break – our emotions get the better of us, and only then, can we truly understand.
For example, when Ed finds out that his wife has been unfaithful, he collapses to his knees with the weight of this knowledge, reeling over with feelings of sickness.The complete and utter sadness, the heartbreak, he feels at that moment in time, manifests itself into a physical feeling of sickness, as he is forced to bend to the will of his emotions – he is no longer the rational, calculating, dispassionate Ed we saw before this point.
In Kitty’s retaliation to Ed’s behaviour by herself having an affair with Tim, the production focuses on the idea of revenge. We often see people playing the vigilante, attempting to take the law into their own hands and dish out punishments they deem appropriate. Such people become blinkered to reason, sometimes to law, and are blinded by their own warped sense of justice, and wreak their own vengeance. However, surely, this means that they become no better than the person they are hurting, and in this case, Kitty becomes like her husband, her morals therefore no better. Therefore, the flaws of attaining an eye for an eye are examined, as it thus becomes harder to distinguish between accuser and accused,victim and perpetrator, innocent and guilty.
However, in a touching moment of reconciliation, as both have been equally hurt – both have played the innocent, yet both been found guilty – Ed and Kitty come together at the play’s close, as both know understand how the other feels, both can relate to the other. Both characters drop to their knees, and once again become equals, both practising the art of forgiveness.
In ‘Consent’, Nina Raine puts justice itself on trial, forcing an audience to act as jury, as the very nature of justice, not only that specified by the law, but our own innate sense of justice, is explored – is persecuted, defended, and cross-examined. Strengths are protected and weaknesses are exploited, legal technicalities are questioned, in a play that hearkens after an ideal world, in which the innocent achieve their justice, and the guilty are suitably punished.
A sleek, sophisticated piece of theatre, ‘Consent’ strips back pretence, and presents a raw, honest exploration of justice, holding a light (or many lights, given Rick Fisher’s elegant lighting design), to the very notion of justice, and strives towards achieving a suitable and encompassing definition, a true evaluation, both of what justice is, and what it stands for.