Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Theatre review: Consent

It feels like a while since we had a new Nina Raine play so Consent is a welcome arrival at the National, and the playwright's sharp dialogue finds a natural home in a group of friends most of whom are barristers. Kitty (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Edward (Ben Chaplin) have been married for ten years and have only just had their first child; Rachel (Priyanga Burford) and Jake (Adam James) have two children but their marriage has hit a rocky patch as Rachel suspects Jake of having an affair. The sextet is rounded off when Ed sets up his colleague Tim (Pip Carter) with Kitty's actor friend Zara (Daisy Haggard,) but this has the side effect of the two men's antagonistic relationship in court spilling out into their personal lives as Tim accuses Ed of actually wanting Zara for himself.

He's in turn accused of fancying Ed's wife - and like most of the accusations levelled by the play's characters against each other, there's more than a grain of truth to both of these.

In fact all the seemingly stable middle class relationships in the play carry the seeds of their own implosion, and do so over the course of a couple of hours. The titular issue of consent is raised by the rape case in which Ed and Tim are on opposing sides at the start of the play, the barristers having a pretty patronising view of the accuser (Heather Craney,) who ends up betrayed by the language and conventions of court (the way this case intrudes on the characters' own lives is the only heavy-handed bit of plotting in an otherwise naturalistic story.)

But the characters who all speak the same legal language are just as likely to trip each other up with it, and although it does deal in part with sexual consent, the play is also about the smaller moments in a relationship and the liberties people take with each other that start to add up. Fortunately Raine mostly goes for comic effect when dealing with the well-off couples' cheating and insecurities, and the dialogue as they use their legal knowledge to take each other's personal lives apart is the play's highlight. Notably in a scene where Ed and Tim are meant to be teaching Zara the techniques they use in court so she can prepare for an audition to play a barrister, but in fact are using the opportunity to passive-aggressively pick at each other. But James and Burford also get a lot of chances to undercut the tension building in the other relationships.

Roger Michell directed Tribes, probably my favourite of Raine's plays so far, and returns to direct Consent on a traverse, which to me personally is the best configuration in the awkward Dorfman. Hildegard Bechtler isn't usually a designer to go for minimalism so although the stage is plain white, with furniture rising out of it, the set is dominated by mismatched light fittings that come down to represent different rooms. And then there's a cast that includes Future Dames Haggard and Maxwell Martin, plus a real live baby (theatres just never learn the lesson that this is all the show will be remembered for,) which makes it something of a relief that the Medea themes Raine lays under the play don't come out too literally - although after a little reference to how few modern plays give a female actor the chance of a big climactic passionate speech, she does give one to Haggard. The naturalistic structure of the story - things happen that fit into the overall themes but not everything necessarily fits into a narrative - means it's not always clear where it's going but there's some great dialogue and an expert cast to deliver it.

Consent by Nina Raine is booking until the 17th of May at the National Theatre's Dorfman.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Sarah Lee.

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