Consent is intense. At every single break, there was some restlessness in the audience, like everyone had to talk to the person next to them or let out a big sigh to deal with the stress of watching. Everyone was so invested that every time the lights went down people seemed to realise how much tension they had been holding. The drama keeps building and building, and it is sustained right until the end.
The play starts out very legal and detached, with the group of friends discussing a rape trial casually and at times quite insensitively, showing the lawyers’ point of view of one of the many cases that they deal with. As the play progresses, the case and the issues faced are mirrored in the characters’ personal lives, challenging the opinions they express at the beginning. It becomes more and more emotionally complex, transitioning from legal to very personal, as the characters themselves face disputes about marriage, infidelity and rape. The play focuses more on the lawyers’ experiences than the victim’s, at times giving a very distanced and harsh view of the case, taking facts at face value even if they don’t believe them. This insensitivity is flipped when the issues affect the lawyers’ own lives, highlighting how difficult it is to pass judgement on these cases when people do not act in a logical way.
All of the actors give an amazing performance, with every character having an emotional, heartfelt scene at some point. Heather Craney, who plays Gayle – the victim – as well as the divorce lawyer, is onstage for the shortest time but gives one of the most memorable performances, her depth of emotion is a sharp contrast to the casual way that Gayle’s case is treated by the lawyers. Stephen Campbell Moore’s performance is perhaps the most versatile, his character has the biggest transformation over the course of the play. He starts out as the cool and collected lawyer but becomes more and more affected by his emotions as the plot progresses. Claudie Blakely also demonstrates a wide range, her character at the end is almost unrecognisable from the beginning of the play, but she changes so subtly that you hardly notice it happening.
The most interesting aspect of this play is the way it avoids giving a direct solution and preaching to the audience. Nina Raine manages to challenge opinions on all aspects of this issue, even the ones that seem the most clear-cut at first. The dual nature of the play showing both the case and the lawyers’ response to it pulls the focus onto how much our feelings shape our opinions, and how difficult it is to legislate on something so entangled with emotion. It is a very effective commentary on the issues of rape, infidelity and sexual assault because none of the characters are blameless. The play highlights the issues in the legal system when dealing with this kind of situation, but doesn’t attempt to put forward a solution.
Overall, everything about this play feels very well balanced. There is humour but not so much as to devalue the gravity of the subject matter, the points of all consuming emotion are balanced with calm and stillness, and the logical, legal discussions of the beginning contrast with the turmoil of the ending. This topic continues to be so widely debated, and even a year after the first performance of Consent, the issues it raises are still completely relevant. This is not a play that is demanding change outright, but it does make you reconsider your opinions and how we think about this issue.
Consent plays until 11th August at the Harold Pinter Theatre