"Powerful. One of Nina Raine’s most enjoyable and intelligent plays"
The two champagne-flute-chiming couples at the centre of Nina Raine’s new play Consent are high-flying lawyers who would be happier trying to converse in one of the African clicking languages than doff their mock-jaded irony around even the most basic human watersheds, such as wetting a new baby's head.
Only a highly intelligent author such as Raine can evoke the terrible insufficiency of intelligence alone – and of all the brainy smart talk that it generates – to save the souls of anyone. The men talk with a nasal insider-snidery that sounds like a blocking-out of good things: fresh air, for example... And of course, sex as a subject runs like obligato under everything.
The easiest way to market this work would be to mischaracterise it as an issue play about the boiling blur with regard to proof and motivation in legal cases that turn on a charge of date- and marital-rape. And that would not be false, just inadequate. Heather Craney is excellent as Gayle, the working-class woman who alleges that she was raped on the day of her sister's funeral. The fact that she was already in therapy does not strengthen her case. But later she seeks out the lawyers and poops a private party in a tricky but adroitly handled scene not dissimilar to the irruptions into the court by mad Queen Margaret in Richard III.
The grotesque irony is that her credibility was questioned because she was receiving treatment for the long-term damage wrought by the experience of being violently assaulted as a teenager. The play is very alive to how the fine tines in the fork of jurisprudence (so to speak) – always a-quiver to be seen to be acting impersonally and impartially – may miss the heart of the matter, unlike, say, at at times, a well aimed kitchen knife...
Directed by Roger Michell with a wonderfully light-footed nippiness as it darts around among the domestic landmines, the play ripples out to cover ordinary marital misery. Anna Maxwell Martin and Ben Chaplin are unimprovable as the kind of couple who have no statute of limitations on long-festering grudges. She thinks that only by subjecting him to infidelity – with Pip Carter's superb Tim – will she get her husband to realise the hurt he has caused her by his adulteries. She does not bargain for the law of unintended consequences.
They escalate into an orgy of frantic mutual recrimination about who was doing what to whom in the bout of sex they had just before she threw him out for good. She's driven even more demented that custody battles don't take marital assault into account because such brutality doesn't directly affect the interests of the child. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? And what does it mean to forgive in such circumstance. The final scene is unforgettable – like a weird reversal of the statue scene in The Winter's Tale – as she wavers tearfully toward her husband who is immobilised in a posture of compromised penitence. One of Nina Raine's most enjoyable and intelligent plays yet. Unreservedly recommended.
“A modern classic”
In lesser hands this would just be an “issue” drama: lawyers fighting a rape case with their usual jaunty rivalry find everything changes when the sexual transgressions come closer to home. Here, however, Nina Raine creates an unforgettably complex, blackly comical and affecting picture of logic and articulacy duking it out with unruly emotions and messy reality. Raine scrapes past her characters’ glib facades without suggesting glib solutions. She packs her hotly topical play with as much human life as we’ve seen on the West End stage for a long time.
The humans in question aren’t always warm to the touch. Stephen Campbell Moore’s Edward is the alpha-arguer we see in court expertly casting aspersions on the woman accusing his client of raping her. Claudie Blakley’s Kitty is the wife who wonders if his adversarial élan is edging out his humanity: “Standing up and lying in front of people, it corrupts you.”
Roger Michell’s production ropes us easily into a garrulous group who make their trade by being convincing. When we first see these barrister buddies at home, we almost feel part of the gang as they drink their fizz and dish out gallows humour. We wince along with the others as Adam James’s Jake argues that his affairs keep his marriage alive. (James, similarly brazen in Doctor Foster, is fast cornering the market in well-spoken faithlessness.)
Yet there’s no caricature. Lack of intelligence is never the issue. Lack of emotional intelligence may be. And Consent goes from good to great in the scene in which Edward and his rival, Tim (Lee Ingleby), compete for the affections of actress Zara (Clare Foster) by using and exposing the rhetorical tricks of their trade. It’s fascinating, appalling, amusing and exciting; David Mamet via Derren Brown on Gray’s Inn Road.
There are no heroes here, but no villains either; not even Edward, not even later when the tables are turned on him. This extraordinary balancing act is fuelled by bantering depictions of friendship, rivalry and attraction that change gear smoothly into knottier depictions of betrayals, deceptions and reckonings.
The case against? Flimsy, m’lud. Some might want Raine to prosecute her arguments into a neater, firmer conclusion, but I’d argue that the way she tackles hot topics but puts her characters first — with all their slippery, frustrating, deeply human refusal to conform precisely to one idea or another — is what makes this so rivetingly lifelike.
Granted, in this proscenium-arch theatre the play lacks some of the uncanny intimacy of its first run at the National last year. One or two actors, early on, strain for effect. Mostly, though, they are first-rate. And Campbell Moore and Blakley make something heartbreaking of an ending in which he finally shows his vulnerability. Jammed with ideas, rich with humanity, Consent is a modern classic.
“Needs to be seen”
If, like me, when the last bow has been taken, you enjoy nothing more than to chew over the evening’s entertainment, then make sure you’ve been brushing well. Because Nina Raine’s latest play is going to have you wearing your molars to the root – so tough and contentious are the issues you’ll be gnawing away on.
After an acclaimed opening at the National Theatre last year, Consent thoroughly deserves its transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre. It’s a play that needs to be seen: for the quality of its writing, its performances, and its contribution to a public conversation that is only just beginning.
Taking a critical look at the adversarial, point-scoring nature of the legal system, it questions whether justice in rape cases is best served in an arena where finding the truth appears less important than telling the neatest story. It shows how defining the narrative is crucial, and how it can be warped by prejudice and omission.
Gayle (Heather Crane) alleges she was raped after her sister’s funeral. Her assailant maintains that it was consensual. Acting for the defence, Edward (Stephen Campbell Moore) coldly and systematically exploits her history of depression in a sharp cross-examination, fundamentally undermining her case. But the accused’s history of repeated sexual criminality is deemed prejudicial, and therefore any mention of it is withheld from the case. Tim, the prosecuting lawyer, is an unconvincing and even unwilling advocate, and Gayle is left asking whose job it is to defend her.
Raine’s appraisal of the system is clear – down to how the working-class victim’s drunkenness is seen as a character flaw, even as the lawyers themselves rarely carry out a conversation without an open bottle to hand. But she also looks beyond the courtroom and examines the relationships of those charged with overseeing the law. Are their lives any more moral?
Edward’s marriage to Kitty (Claudie Blakley) simmers with the strain of his previous infidelity. And his emotional detachment, which serves him so well professionally, has permeated his private life so totally that Kitty is alienated by his need to rationalise every disagreement in legal argument.
Their friend Tim (Lee Ingleby) is a perennial singleton who’s been set up with the gregarious Zara (Clare Foster), but he’s always been attracted to Kitty and can’t help but act on it. Jack and Rachel, with whom they all socialise, are no more functional. She having kicked him out for his unashamed adultery.
As their relationship becomes increasingly volatile, Kitty accuses Edward of marital rape, and all of the arguments from the courtroom are played out in the home. Only here all the messy emotions, irrationality, and stark human nature aren’t forced into the narrow constraints of jurisprudence. It pointedly illustrates how discerning right from wrong can sometimes come down to opinion, rather than fact.
The cast are excellent. Stephen Campbell Moore and Claudie Blakley (Kitty) present a totally engrossing portrayal of a complicated, mutually flawed couple. Lee Ingleby gives Tim a resoluteness that belies his hapless nature; and Clare Foster is lively and entertaining as Zara.
Adam James manages to make Jake likeable, which is no mean feat; and Sian Clifford’s Rachel is enjoyably spiky. As Gayle, Heather Craney delivers an emotional performance that can render a silence palpable.
This is a play you’ll be talking about for a long time to come.
“An intricately layered play that probes many topics”
“Timely… impressive and provocative”
“I raped this woman… no witness, she’s a bit of a drinker, so am I, her word against mine.”
As the curtain rises on this hard-hitting tragicomedy, two champagne-clinking sex-crime lawyers engage in dark repartee, mimicking their clients and foreshadowing their own involvement in a perverted web of personal justice.
In a play that pivots on the power of language, drama builds in both the courtroom and the bedroom. Under the shadow of a rape case, Kitty grapples with her barrister husband Edward’s chilling lack of empathy in both his work and their relationship. He may serve the law, but she has her own beliefs about marital justice unserved. Justice, they discover, isn’t as clear cut when the accusations are angled closer to home.
Meanwhile, the linguistic duel between Edward and prosecutor Tim escalates outside the courtroom. Character is placed on trial as old misdeeds are dug up for judgement. Legal grey areas become moral minefields as language becomes a weapon to entrap and condemn.
A sophisticated, powerful and relevant drama, Consent has transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre after a sold-out season at the National.