“Of course it’s ‘them’. We’re not them. Which is why we’re paid to represent them. Because they can’t string two words together.”
Nina Raine’s new play, Consent, at the Dorfman is brought to us by Out of Joint, a company who pride themselves on taking productions out of London. This, though, is a London play and the National is the right place for it. Consent follows a group of high-powered barristers defending/prosecuting rapists in the daytime and retiring in the evenings for vodka or red wine to each other’s London pads where they talk classical theatre and mock the little people: “of course it’s ‘them’, we’re not them”. Legal jokes proliferate: you’re only going into Human Rights for the money. Londoners’ woes abound: hell is Putney. And somewhere in amongst the intellectual jousting, incestuous emotional lives, and sympathetically clueless parenting, a serious discussion about rape struggles to emerge.
Out of Joint have brought about a small coup with the casting. Ben Chaplin, fresh from BBC’s Apple Tree Yard, is Edward, a barrister defending rapists in the dock. Anna Maxwell Martin admirably plays Edward’s wife Kitty, taking the moral high ground just as convincingly as she took the moral low ground as Regan in the National’s 2014 Lear. This frustrated couple are thwarted and supported by a collection of high-powered friends. Rachel (Priyanga Burford), another lawyer, is married to lawyer and philanderer, Jake (Adam James, familiar to audiences as Prince Harry from the Almeida’s 2014 Charles III). Tim (Pip Carter), another barrister, and damp squib driven by resentment of his colleagues, is matched by Zara (Daisy Haggard), an actress desperate for house, husband and child. These six frenemies are counterbalanced by Gayle (Heather Craney) whose pursuit of justice to be visited on the man who raped her is taken painfully out of her control by Edward and Tim, defendant and prosecutor of the crown’s (rather than her) case against the accused.
Raine’s script emphasises that moral and legal justice are distinct entities. The courts have one idea of what is reasonable and people have quite another. In Raine’s depiction, justice in court hinges on rhetorical skill rather than moral fairness. But the characters in Consent let their professional conduct bleed into their personal lives: at home the barristers fight each other with the same emotionally bankrupt zealotry that they take to the courts, but with very different results. Anger is dismissed as “mad” and empathy is labelled “innumerate”. It’s no wonder nobody’s happy.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set is simple (much like her Waste at the National in 2015) and the select props set off Raine’s themes. Sofas face-off against empty space, demarcating the different sides of the arguments played out in Consent. Counterbalanced rise-fall lights decorate the ceiling, their mechanism providing a succinct metonym for the legal process in which lives hang in the balance. Generally the production is slick, the actors excellent and the direction by Roger Michell (of 1999’s Notting Hill) simple and effective.
The play, though, is called Consent and it’s trying to be more than a witty legal drama. Somewhere in this production is a social point fighting to get out. Consent is a problematic intervention into the issue of what consent is, how it is given, and what disregarding it does to perpetrator and victim. Intervention is the correct word. Theatre participates in cultural discourse and is a political event, whether implicitly or explicitly. Unfortunately in Consent the point of the intervention remains obscure. The play veers sharply from a straightforward illustration of the iniquities of the legal process for rape victims to a frankly frustrating portrayal of a second rape, which directly involves the lawyers themselves. The second rape victim ventriloquises meninist fears by accusing her partner of a “technical rape” that has left her neither emotionally scarred nor damaged but actually empowered as she can take her partner to court for everything he has and gain custody of their child. The play ends with a forgiveness scene that feels very similar to Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger’s Ted talk advocating forgiveness of rape as emotionally healing.
This felt like a play that consoled male privilege rather than disturbing it. Firstly, a large part of the play is led by privileged white male banter, often at the expense of the female rape victim it is their job to interrogate in the witness box. The male characters are frequently despicable, but they are also charming and funny and this is permitted to overwhelm their negatives. The victim of a “technical rape” is an unhelpful fantasy, giving airtime again to meninist arguments that rape gives a free pass to women to destroy the lives of men baselessly. By concluding the play with the victim forgiving the perpetrator, the play reassures lingering discomfiture in the male spectator: “don’t worry, nothing is beyond forgiveness.” As a woman (and aware of the high numbers of women who have experienced sexual violence and must also be in the audience) watching this play was frequently alienating.
This is not to dismiss forgiveness out of hand. Restorative justice has a lot to be said for it, even in the case of rape victims. Harriet Madeley’s play The Listening Room, which played to sold-out audiences at the Old Red Lion in Islington, was a deeply moving lesson in this. For The Listening Room, Madeley interviewed several perpetrators and victims of violent crimes and then structured the recordings into a compelling, poignant narrative. Actors were equipped with headphones and performed the recorded stories of the real individuals directly to the audience.
It is true that the benefits of restorative justice have also been testified to by some rape victims, and clearly for individuals who chose to take part it has the potential to be an affirming and positive experience. However, the recent media furore surrounding Thordis Elvis’s and Tom Stranger’s Ted talk and their book, South of Forgiveness, highlights a key problem with promoting forgiveness in the case of sex crimes. Whilst individuals do find restorative justice beneficial, it is unhelpful for cultural platforms to push forgiveness as though it were a moral prerogative, or even the central issue. The systemic issues surrounding rape cases are enormous and this should be the focus of public attention. Rape victims rarely come forward, and when they do their pursuit of justice is dogged by victim-blaming, the exposure of intimate details of sexual history and mental health, and a process that can take several years. The recent case involving Ched Evans has been a flashpoint prompting calls for reform. The capacity to forgive, whilst admirable, is not in many cases possible as victims are more likely to have suffered in silence than to have the emotional and social support networks in place to allow them to extend forgiveness to the perpetrator. More must be done systemically and culturally to make this process easier for victims of rape and to increase convictions. To promote forgiveness is a damaging distraction from this more immediate and pressing issue.
As an intervention into a fraught social issue, it has to be said Consent is unsatisfactory, but as entertainment it is compelling. If you liked The History Boys you’ll find Consent alternately gripping and amusing. But if you found one history boys’ exploitation of feminism for personal advantage in his Oxford entrance exam debilitatingly enervating, you will find Consent a similar experience.
Consent is showing at the National Theatre until the 17th of May. More information can be found here.
 Charlotte Higgins, “Theatre: The Nation’s Debating Chamber”, The Guardian 6th March 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/mar/06/political-theatre-nations-debating-chamber
 Zoe Williams, “Restorative Justice: Why I Confronted the Man Who Raped Me”, The Guardian 27th January 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/jan/27/restorative-justice-confronted-rape
 Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith, “Rape victims facing ‘humiliating’ questions about clothing and sexual history during trials, MP reveals”, The Independent 8th February 2017.