Nina Raine’s Consent is, at first glance, a play about attitudes towards rape, and how victims of rape are treated by the current British justice system. It is also a wider exploration of the notion of consent, opposing truths, forgiveness and the vast disparity between the law and justice.
As the play opens, Kitty and her barrister husband Ed have just had a baby and have moved into a new house. They are celebrating with their married friends Jake and Rachel – also lawyers – but notice something stilted and awkward in Jake and Rachel’s interactions. Meanwhile, their mutual friend Zara is an actor who is performing in a production of Medea and auditioning for the role of a lawyer in a TV show. Ed gives her advice on portraying a lawyer while also trying to set her up with his barrister friend Tim. Explaining the legal system to Zara, Ed notes that ‘“basically, it’s a fight between two opposing narratives.”
This fight between opposing narratives spills out into the characters personal lives when Ed and Tim take opposing sides in a rape case. The plaintiff, Gayle, cannot understand why she does not have a lawyer of her own or why her past and personal life are a matter for the court when the past crimes of her attacker are not. In the interim, Jake has been caught having an affair by Rachel, Zara and Tim start a relationship and Kitty and Ed’s relationship falls apart.
The adversarial debate of the courtroom becomes the confrontational arguments of the domestic sphere. The audience becomes judge and jury as we watch these characters turn their family homes into sparring courtrooms, and take their legal grudges into the bedroom. The question of consent, already presented as something murky in the rape case of act one, becomes more complex still when explored within the confines of a marriage.
There’s a world in which you’re both telling the truth. But that’s not the law. In court, your narratives are oil and water. They can never mix. One of you will win. And one of you will lose.
Gayle, the rape victim, cannot understand why the law makes things so difficult for cases such as hers. She is confused by the intricacies of a process, which means that her alleged rapist has a lawyer, but she does not, and that evidence of her mental health issues can be used to undermine her case, while her attacker’s previous crimes cannot be disclosed to the jury. ‘Are you on my side?’ she asks the lawyer, completely adrift within the system that is supposed to be there to protect her.
Ed explains that presumption of innocence rests on the belief that it is better for guilty men to go free than an innocent man to be convicted. When Gayle wonders why that is better, yet none of the lawyers has an answer for her.
When that same analogy plays out within their own personal lives, things become more complex still.
Consent is an intelligent and often searing drama, which uses the tropes of Greek theatre and myth to explore ideas of vengeance, guilt and justice. Raine is careful not to side with any character – all have their complaints, but none is wholly innocent of causing hurt to someone else. She is also very skilled at showing how cold the law can be, particularly when experienced by a victim of crime, and the scene where Gayle intrudes on a Christmas party at Ed and Kitty’s house is incredibly powerful.
Do lawyers, who spend all their time debating and theorising about people’s lives, for whom all discussion is a question of winning or losing, become desensitised to the pain of others? Moreover, if so, what does this do to their personal relationships? Kitty feels that she can no longer talk, let along argue with Ed because he talks to her ‘like’ a barrister.
It’s a sort of trapdoor. You ring-fence around, locking off escape routes. And then you pull the lever. You drive an unanswerable rhetorical wedge between the answers.
If this all sounds like heavy stuff, it is. However, it is also surprisingly funny particularly in both party scenes. However, in a clever pivot, Raine uses the humour to show how completely inured these barristers have come to be about the cases they are defending or prosecuting.
This lively, engrossing and incredibly clever play offers no easy answers to any of its questions. What is fair? Is the law fair? Is justice fair? Yet, more importantly, what is right? At the end of the play, as with the end of the trial, it is up to those who have been watching the evidence to decide.
The original production of Consent is available to watch through the National Theatre at Home initiative and I would highly recommend it. Anna Maxwell Martin and Ben Chaplin are fantastically good and the dark humour of the play is really brought to the fore. It is also wonderfully staged, with everything – including the audience – on opposing sides.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!