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Nina Raine’s prickly drama about rape and sexual consent felt like a bold statement when it premiered to huge acclaim at London’s National Theatre in April 2017. Over a year later, in the post-Weinstein climate, this limited-run West End transfer feels both more timely and more potentially inflammatory. With a mostly fresh cast and updated program notes that acknowledge the #MeToo movement, Consent is a serious-minded work that gains extra heft from recent news headlines but does not pander to them. More discursive than didactic, it explores some contentious issues without reducing them to soapbox polemic. And, perhaps more important, without forgetting the key mission of drama to engage and entertain.
Raine earned international acclaim in 2012 with her prizewinning breakthrough play about deafness, Tribes. Consent shares the same director, Roger Michell of Notting Hill fame, and uses a similarly elegant style of nimble scenes crisply divided by fragrant bursts of music. Though their themes are different, both dramas are closely concerned with the willful miscommunication and stealth power games that shape intimate relationships. A witty discourse on weighty and newsworthy matters, Consent feels universal and finely crafted enough to make another transatlantic transfer viable.
In a suble foreshadowing of some of the dramatic dilemmas ahead, Consent opens with a real baby onstage, one of six sharing the role. This is Max, the newborn son that London lawyer Edward (Stephen Campbell Moore) and his wife Kitty (Claudie Blakley) are proudly showing off to their friends Rachel (Sian Clifford) and Jake (Adam James). All four are well-heeled legal professionals. Between baby-cradling duties, Edward casually shares the grim details of his latest case, defending an accused man on trial for rape.
Another friend of the group, state prosecutor Tim (Lee Ingleby), is effectively acting for the rape victim, Gayle (Heather Craney). But both men are working within a skewed judicial system which rules the defendant’s past record of sexual assault inadmissible while brutally probing Gayle’s sexual history and inconsistent testimony. This looks plainly one-sided to untrained eyes but, as Edward haughtily insists, the law must remain scrupulously impersonal.
Outside the courtroom, where most of Consent takes place, all this lofty ethical posturing plays out somewhat differently. Unresolved issues of sexual infidelity, past and present, take a toll on all the main characters. By the second act, Edward and Kitty are heading for a bitter divorce and custody battle. A second rape, this time within marriage, forces the whole group to rethink their glib use of slippery legalese jargon to legitimize their own venal, violent acts. Impersonal legal concepts suddenly become very personal indeed.
This is where Raine’s fascination with weaponized language really bites, not in unpicking the nuts and bolts of courtroom procedure, but in exposing the gaps between hollow legal victory and real justice, between noble rhetoric and devious intent, between carefully neutral expressions of regret and sincere confessions of guilt. “An apology has to cost something or it’s not an apology,” Kitty seethes at Edward.
In formal terms, Consent spends much of its two-hour running time in familiar dinner-party farce territory, taking potshots at the self-deluding hypocrisy of the metropolitan middle classes. Raine plays a few tricksy games with structure, chiefly in two scenes where related but separate conversations overlap, but these are fleeting experimental flourishes in an otherwise solidly traditional two-act piece. The all-white ensemble of this new production also feels oddly anomalous on a contemporary West End stage, where color-blind casting is increasingly the norm. The original National Theatre cast was marginally more diverse.
But for all its essential conservatism, Consent also delivers meaty performances, zesty dialogue and unexpectedly big laughs given its gnarly subject matter. Raine keeps the joke count high, with plenty of the salty language and cheery vulgarity that Brit audiences cherish. Clifford and James bring the most comic spice as a long-term couple who have almost come to relish the serial disappointments of their defective marriage. Raine also throws in some droll twists, including a playful poltergeist subplot and a seemingly random dental emergency. These quirky details feel like the sort of red herrings that enliven Coen brothers movies.
Playing a proudly stubborn couple torn apart by competing narratives, as in a court case, Blakley and Moore both give full-spectrum performances that reach a crescendo of stormy love-hate convulsions in the second act. Ingleby also does subtle work as the clownish beta male of the group, a dark horse who proves surprisingly destructive over the long haul. But Raine never resorts to scornful caricature, leaving the audience to play judge and jury toward her believably flawed protagonists.
As Gayle, Craney is plausible but functional, her role as downtrodden victim more symbolic than fully rounded. Raine could have done more to flesh out her rape case, which plays very much like a secondary shadow of the main relationship plot. A deliberate choice, of course, but one which effectively sidelines the play’s biggest tragedy. Consent is a shrewd rumination on guilt and innocence, but it leaves some obvious questions of social class and privilege unexplored.
Michell’s light-touch direction never feels intrusive while Hildegard Bechtler’s set, with its softly gliding wall panels and spare furniture that silently appears through stage trapdoors, conveys a similar level of bespoke minimalism. The vivid chamber-orchestra etudes of Kate Whitley’s score reinforce the overall sense of a classy production package finely calibrated to Raine’s sophisticated, sharply scripted drama.
Venue: Harold Pinter Theatre, London
Cast: Claudie Blakley, Stephen Campbell Moore, Sian Clifford, Heather Craney, Clare Foster, Lee Ingleby, Adam James
Director: Roger Michell
Set Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Costume designer: Dinah Collin
Lighting designer: Rick Fisher
Music: Kate Whitley
Sound designers: John Leonard, Sarah Weltman
Presented by National Theatre, Sonia Friedman Productions, Out of Joint
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