Emotionally powerful, with moments of truthfulness and rawness, Asking For It faces questions surrounding consent in the digital age head on. It delves deeply into the way in which victims of sexual violence are treated, and the fallout that surrounds those who come forward. The play’s title itself, a term all too often thrown around, instantly evokes ideas of victim shaming and blaming.
There is something significant in the fact that Asking For It, originally a young adult novel by Louise O’Neill, has been adapted for the stage by Meadhbh McHugh. Stories such as this, that engender important discussions, need to be staged too. This production does so successfully, with scenes that are visceral and powerful, under the direction of Annabelle Comyn. It is also pleasing to see such a female lead production.
The opening monologue by Emma, our leading role played by Lauren Coe, instantly establishes the play’s tone. Her face framed in a small beam of light, she opens her soul to the audience and introduces the narrative of unjust shame and guilt. Later moments of soliloquy, performed by Emma’s school mates, spreads this central point of view to different characters, from the girl gang to the riotous jocks. These are truly notable and gratifying moments, that engage directly with the audience to build a picture of teenage struggle, substance fuelled parties and traversing the world of sex. A particularly moving soliloquy came from Zoë, played superbly by Venetia Bowe. Her inner turmoils spill out over the audience, as she verbalises her mental grappling with depression.
These moments of raw expression within the first act, however, were unsuitably matched with awkwardly staged interactions and banter between the group of teens. The conversational dialogue felt unauthentic and forced, playing too deeply into gendered stereotypes to a slightly cringe worthy degree. An abrupt, choreographed dance number that broke out, symbolising an explosive start to a night of drunken partying, felt out of place and unnatural. The revelry quickly escalated into harrowing scenes of sexual assault. Emma, vulnerable, intoxicated and eventually unconscious becomes the victim of abuse. Flashing images and a droning siren accompanied the shocking escalation into the off-stage rape, detailed by voice over. For the first time during the play there was a massive, hard hitting impact. The atmosphere felt tight, the audience left breathless at the pain and distress. It is hard to argue anyone is deserving of such violence or manipulation; no one would ask for it. After, pictures of the sexual violence are spread online, and Emma describes them in torturing detail, one by one. This punchy climax that concluded act one, emerged as the most striking moment of the whole play, that was unfortunately surrounded by less artful interactions.
The adaptable set designed by Paul O’Mahony had intriguing qualities, being squared and block-like. The set was often used delightfully: the party scene was a visual spectacle, the actors invading and inhabiting the inner structure of the set. We could see how Emma became lost in the mess of bodies and conversations, an environment her perpetrators thrived in. These interactions with the staging were visually engaging, which is why it was disappointing that the set was not utilised more in such a way. The second act, which focuses on the devastating aftermath, is set in Emma’s family kitchen, for (almost) the remainder of the performance. Act two becomes slow moving but emotionally moving nevertheless.
Some impassioned moments of emotional breakdown, from Emma’s Mam (played by Dawn Bradfield) and brother Bryan (played by Kwaku Fortune), keep the intensity alive. Mostly though, the energy dramatically dips as the pacing is dragged out. Overall, this overhaul of pace made the play feel like two different styles, or two different plays even, attached together. It is the overarching story though, the horrible crime committed against Emma, that connects them. Despite it’s staging and directorial flaws the play was powerful because of it’s bold assessment of victim shaming and the backlash of rape allegations. It highlights the tragic reality that it feels ‘easier’ for girls to not step forward, or to just shut up. But Emma’s voice is never quashed to the audience. We hear her voiceover, her inner mind, when other victims are all too often muted. Even when she becomes a shadow of herself, and steps down, her voice is screaming into the silence to the very end.
Asking For It is running at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 29th January – 15th February.