I like to think you never really learn how to fight with someone until you’ve been married to them. I speak from experience. These are the fights you can only have when you know exactly which layer of scar tissue to dig a switchblade into so that it will bleed out slowly and painfully, and that will take you days – no, weeks – to stanch the wound with forgiveness and apologies. Maybe it’s the legality of the marriage contract that does it, the signing of which is at once a surrender and a liberation. And both legality and marriage take the floor in Nina Raine’s exquisitely devastating new play, Consent.
Consent circles closely around rape, and sexual consent is the play’s main artery. Three middle-aged couples, mostly close friends and mostly in the legal profession, are navigating the affairs of the heart over copious amounts of alcohol in their cozy living rooms – as well as a court case at work. Two of the male barristers are on opposing sides of a rape trial: the by-the-book, conscientious Tim (Pip Carter) as prosecutor for the crown, and the cerebral, self-righteous Ed (Ben Chaplin) defending the alleged rapist. Ed and his wife, Kitty (Anna Maxwell Martin) have just had a baby, and are good friends with another high-powered barrister couple, Jake (Adam James) and Rachel (Priyanga Burford), whose marriage holds more than just a few secrets. Then there’s Kitty’s alluring best friend, the actress Zara (Daisy Haggard), who bemoans the lack of female roles written the way the Ancient Greeks’ were – fiery, fiendish goddesses storming across the stage.
Zara gets her wish. Raine brings her scalpel to the dissection of the human heart when it comes to love, marriage, relationships, fidelity and revenge, flaying every part of it with clinical precision. While examining why the violent, repulsive act of rape still evokes such polarising responses in society, be it victim-blaming, slut-shaming or “she said no, but she meant yes”, Raine maps the justifications and excuses that come with consent onto the unruly territory of marriage. Women aren’t only treated as physical possessions in the courtroom, where a rape survivor, Gayle (Heather Craney) realises she’s been stonewalled by the system, reduced to just another statistic. One weeping husband shouts at his wife: “He’s stolen you, the fucking thief” – and it’s clear she’s become a possession in marriage as well.
There’s a symmetry to Consent. The yes-no of it, the husband-wife, the thinking-feeling, the black-white, the right-wrong, the sorry-not sorry. The brutal arguments that run through the play, pitting one side against another, are then themselves inverted, where couples seem to fall into a mirror and come out the other side to find themselves horribly disoriented instead of reflected the way they think they will be. Director Roger Michell doesn’t just position his couples as contenders in a ring; he shifts the ring itself, flipping entrances and exits and positions of power, where every physical side taken on stage also means an alignment with one person or one belief against another. On Hildegard Bechtler’s clever, automated set, the detritus of crumbling marriages disappears and reappears, sliding soundlessly back onto the surface. The fights are long, draining and melodramatic, and their irrationality and relentlessness feels deliberate. Fights are never rational. They’re bloody and frustratingly repetitive, and make every victory feel like a pyrrhic one.
But Raine leavens her lacerating dialogue with generous lashings of humour. Consent may be exhausting, but it’s also darkly, overwhelmingly funny, even at its bleakest points. Her words find the perfect conduit through a stunning cast of seven who inhabit spiky characters hard to sum up with a collection of adjectives. But it is the on-stage coupling of Maxwell Martin as Kitty and Chaplin as Ed who are the most luminous of them all. She’s the proud empath to his detached logician. You feel entire conversations pass between them in the glances they exchange behind backs.
So much is stuffed into Consent. It’s also a tirade against the dispassionate gaze of the law and never lets you forget it; the barristers may well be wearing signs declaring ‘us lawyers are assholes’. But this also means that some of the stuffing shows at the seams. Raine wants us to mull over how rape culture is embedded in what is spoken and done and dismissed behind the closed doors of domestic life, but while Craney as rape survivor Gayle is absolutely gutting, her character sometimes feels like a convenient narrative device to bind this team of elite barristers to the muck of the real world. Consent wanders the infinite grey area between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, yet the symmetry that Raine and Michell revel in throughout the play, through wordplay and imagery, can feel just a tiny bit too on the nose.
But Fate adores its symmetry, its beginnings and endings. There’s a touch of the Greek with all of this: the hubris, the vengeance, the downfalls, the redemptions. What do we mean in a marriage when we say yes, and compromise, when we really want to say no, this is a dealbreaker? What do we mean when we say no to the person we both love and hate, when we are dying to say yes, I want you back, I want to work this out? It’s not just the big yes-no questions that get an airing, but the tiny ones as well: will you fold the laundry, will you have another glass of wine, will you tell me the truth about this text message? I’m not giving anything away by saying that Consent, in a way, ends as it begins, with a small gesture of an invitation. Say yes.
Consent is on at the National Theatre until 17th May 2017. Click here for more details.