BWW Review: CONSENT, National Theatre
Amidst the middle-class small talk between two couples, one reeling from the arrival of a new baby, comes a shocking confession: "I've been raping pensioners." What kind of monsters are we dealing with here? Well, legal ones - it's barrister speak. Having tackled the NHS in Tiger Country, Nina Raine now has the judicial system in her sights: its eccentricities, seeming unfairness, and the effect it has on those caught in its truth-bending web.
Edward and Tim are barristers on opposite sides of a rape case, but the real battleground is domestic. Just as he's dubious about the merits of prosecuting historic rape, Edward refuses to apologise for an historic affair - considering the words "I'm sorry" an admission of guilt. The marital troubles of barrister friends Jake and Rachel, and Edward's inability to understand the wronged spouse's pain, brings wife Kitty to a crisis point: has his maddening adherence to legal logic entirely eroded his human empathy?
Heavy stuff, but Raine's script is, thankfully, peppered with laughs. Adam James supplies many of them as serial philanderer Jake, arguing that a marriage vow means consenting to love you, flaws and all ("That's your mother!" retorts Kitty). A fantastic sequence sees the ever-competitive Edward and Tim jockeying to impress Zara, an actress up for a legal drama, by demonstrating rhetorical tricks - like repeating a witness's answer, disguising a bold statement or building verbal traps - while scoring personal points.
The core argument is whether the law can, or should, be dispassionate. Gayle (an agonising performance from Heather Craney), who was raped after her sister's funeral, wants Tim to understand her pain; he's more concerned about her sharing details that weren't in her original police statement, and are therefore inadmissible in court. Edward's chilly, deliberate cross-examination - in which he raises her therapy sessions and drinking - just seems inhuman to Gayle.
Is this the difference between fair justice and wild vengeance? Or a system failing those it should protect? Gayle's initial question to Tim - "Are you on my side?" - hangs in the air. The barristers' ability to emotional disengage and construct a narrative that suits them bleeds into their personal lives, and the dismissal of criminals and victims as other ("We're not them") comes to look exceedingly naïve.
Raine does tend to overstate her themes and arguments, and the dense plotting is overly schematic, verging on soapy - Florian Zeller's recent The Truth covered similar ground with a much lighter touch. Actress Zara doing a Greek tragedy, thus inviting helpful discussion of infidelity, vengeance and using children to wound a spouse, is a tad clunky.
It's also a firmly privileged milieu, with the only working-class character used as something of a thematic prop and the barristers casually mocking the regional accents of those they represent. Yet, in a well-judged Roger Michell production, it does manage the powerful combination of darkly funny, wrenchingly sad and inescapably provocative; expect many a shouting match in the bar afterwards.
Anna Maxwell Martin is a potent emotional anchor as Kitty, shell-shocked by her transformation from publishing professional to stay-at-home mother; shifting identities are another major theme for Raine. Ben Chaplin is bracingly reptilian as the overly rational Edward, and there's excellent support from Priyanga Burford, Pip Carter and Daisy Haggard.
Sleek furniture rises from beneath the stage in Hildegard Bechtler's fluid set - appropriate for a play in which buried secrets constantly emerge - and an array of lights overhead are a constant reminder of Kitty and Edward's acquisition: a symbolically counterweighted lamp. Trappings of small children also underscores the crucial idea that morality isn't innate, but learned - and what lessons are this group teaching their offspring? A thought-provoking piece about the slipperiness of truth, fragility of relationships, and murky unknowability of justice.
Photo credit: Sarah Lee