FringeReview UK 2017
Seamlessly directed by Raine’s long-term collaborator Roger Michell Nina Raine’s new play Consent opens at the National Theatre’s Dorfman. Designer Hildegard Bechtler’s lucent grey rectangle pops up different sofas, sometimes with people. Similarly Rick Fisher’s clinical lighting suggests day and night-light. Till May 17th.
Nina Raine’s new play Consent is an engrossing dissection of law dispensing with justice, which almost never gets to the courtroom: we’re once there and in a lobby, but the tangled domestics of lawyers who discuss cases, indeed oppose each other in court, form and dissolve little courts in drawing rooms with champagne.
It’s seamlessly directed by Raine’s long-term collaborator Roger Michell at the National Theatre’s Dorfman with designer Hildegard Bechtler’s lucent grey rectangle popping up different sofas, sometimes with people, leaving space bare enough for words to hit the intimate audience like jurors. Similarly Rick Fisher’s clinical lighting suggests day and night-light and at the end of Act One, Christmas lights.
Anna Maxwell Martin’s Kitty, long married to Ben Chaplin’s remote Edward, celebrates her gingerly-handled baby. Unlike her barrister spouse and friends she’s an editor, suavely witty, shrouding bitterness. From the outset language is sexualized. Kitty mentions head-size and pride in vaginal deliveries, which Adam James’s Jake mouths ‘respect’ to but it’s his wife Rachel (Priyanga Burford) whom Kitty suspects uses sexualized language. Bonds are provisional. Soon the quartet argue Jake’s infidelity, Rachel’s lack of forgiveness, added to with Kitty’s actor friend Zara (Daisy Haggard) rehearsing Medea and being lined up for bachelor Pip Carter’s Classics-trained Tim, the man Edward will oppose in court.
A tangle of delayed attraction (Zara wants love and a child but not yet Tim), desperation and Medea’s wounded justice percolates through all the women as Jake’s obvious braggadocio is tactically reconciled to Rachel’s edgy conditionals. ‘What’s wrong with a bit of vengeance?’ Kitty asks elsewhere. Legal skills are deployed but confused. Throughout these disputes, a woman friend takes the man’s part and visa versa. Raine avoids clouding her central premise with male or female bonding; it underlines the instability of all smug intimacies. More, it strips barrister skills to an essence of opposing narratives, as Edward admits. And the need to win undermining whether right is done, as in The Winslow Boy.
Raine shows how agonies become bon-mots but never entirely cynical to these lawyers. Tim simply says of a client that she’s right. But then with poltergeists and BO to deal with, he’s pitied. Carter moves from tolerated loser to someone who leaves a woman to return to another, in a state bordering courtroom triumph. Chaplin’s Edward by contrast peacocks his invulnerability, even to saying ‘sorry’ for a past transgression. It’s a word haunting the remainder of the play. Chaplin’s gleaming carapace terminally alienates Maxwell Martin’s sinewy, complex Kitty, waiting for simple key words.
Raine’s superb constructing an intimate privileged dynamics too, where Zara’s economic living in Zone 4 is indulged. So when Heather Craney’s alleged rape victim Gayle accidentally meets Tim who technically can’t hear any additional information as he represents her (get round that) we’re caterpaulted into a haunting of Gayle’s injustice. Her mental health history can be used against her (we discover shocking details) but her assailant’s can’t be. Craney projects Gayle’s plain-speaking with helpless force and naked eloquence; to us, the jury, it’s piercingly direct.
Chilly Edward wins out over Tim, who’s disappointed with Gayle’s performance. He’s perhaps more impressed when Gayle turns up at the Christmas party accusing both sides – smugly sofa’d – of complicity. It’s a fine, if faintly incredible moment. Raine needs victims to penetrate the sanctum: she engineers this when Kitty’s next move with Tim precipitates a response from Edward and she charges him with marital rape.
This not only brings out the quartet’s courtroom tendencies (Rachel and Jake take opposing sides, naturally) but throw up finally male/male and female/female spats: Chaplin and Carter square up predictably but Maxwell Martin’s and Haggard’s confrontation (Kitty’s revenge-poached but got tangled) finally releases Zara’s Medea, where a friendship’s torn apart out of the adversarial tropes of law for once. Haggard rises magnificently to this scene, where she and Maxwell Martin give of their best in tearing and flinching.
Though less central, Priyanga Burford’s Rachel smoulderingly inches back to Adam James’ heedless priapism, suggesting a chilly regard for the chilly Edward. James’ laddish Jake threads his way to decency where he could have caricatured.
The denouement too, inverting several scenes earlier powerfully projects the messiness of people who can’t stop or have just started feeling. We’re left to judge right actions on the judges. But victims of injustice can’t indulge that privilege.
It’s an absorbing, absorbingly constructed play, putting barristers on trial but balancing personal and political with enormous deftness, never alienating us. Raine balances articulate ferocity with its opposite: a broken plea, and not just from Gayle. Exceptionally well-written, Consent’s clean logic and logic-chopping with consequences, amplified with a pinch of myth, indeed poltergeists, might well become a small classic.
Reviewers shouldn’t usually add personal witness, but this one was once foreman of a rape trial, where two witnesses flew back from Australia to confirm what they saw. Despite this, one juror said it was a Martian, another that her judge husband said you shouldn’t convict in rape (breaking jury silence); most opted for ‘attempted’; I was alone. But the judge on a miraculous technicality awarded full sentence. Congratulating me afterwards for holding out, fellow-jurors declared they were happy with the outcome. That’s what we’re up against.