Consent, National Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

The act of rape, its effect on the victims and the difficulties with prosecuting attackers, is such a serious subject that one can feel guilty at laughing during Nina Raine’s new play for the National and Out of Joint, Consent. And yet, such laughter is deliberate and necessary: Raine’s darkly witty script uses humour to soften the blow of the issues she weaves into the tale.

Focussing on a group of lawyers, Consent opens as a domestic tale, with Kitty and Edward (Anna Maxwell Martin and Ben Chaplin) celebrating the recent birth of their son with friends Jake (Adam James) and his wife Rachel (Priyanga Burford). Together with colleague Tim (Pip Carter), the lawyers in the group talk about prosecuting and defending rape cases with something approaching glibness, satisfied that in their comfortable lives this is something that happens to other people, but which pays for their comfortable middle-class lives.

Of course, there are signs throughout of the escalation to come. From James and Burford talking about how their young son is struggling to tell the difference to “I” and “you”, to Daisy Haggard (as Kitty’s actor friend Zara) describing the Greek tragedy she is performing in as all about betrayal and punishment, unaware that her comments apply to their circle as well. These are not just barristers: they are children lacking self-awareness and players in a larger game.

Weaving through this cross between Cold Feet and This Life is the tale in which Edward and Tim find each other on opposite sides in court. Heather Craney’s Gayle, the victim of the rapist on trial, struggles with the structure and rules around the judicial process. Her incredulity as she is treated as a witness, and therefore her attacker gets legal options and protections not available to her is palpable.

Gayle’s story is the most straightforward of the production, giving us glimpses into the sort of courtroom drama that has become a TV staple. But Craney’s character is also the most underwritten, Gayle coming across as a cipher whose troubles are not as much of interest to Raine as the disintegrating personal lives of the lawyers around her are. Gayle’s final appearance, in which she reveals some of the aspects of her case that she was not allowed to discuss in court, are the closest that Raine’s script comes to out and out polemicism.

It is in those lives that Raine really lets fly. After a scene in which Chaplin and Carter demonstrate to Haggard (whose character is now researching for a role in a legal drama) the various forms of rhetorical flourishes used by prosecution and defence to push the court argument in their respective favour, we see all the same techniques deployed on all sides.

And that is the play’s great strength, subverting the domestic dramas such that the complex emotional feelings stirred by allegations of rape are legislated among the sofas and standard lamps of suburbia, Hildegard Bechtler’s set – coming on and off stage through an overworked set of lifts, illuminated by an idiosyncratic collection of ceiling lights – reflecting the normalcy of the barristers’ lives as they are thrown into turmoil.

Chaplin’s insouciant, blithely dismissive charmer is the most intriguing character in a world where the men are defined more sharply than the women, even though it is Martin’s Kitty whose actions and reactions draw the story towards its close. By the time the lights come down on the second act, the feeling is of an ensemble in which each is hard to like, but who each deserve some sympathy. And in a play which does sometimes stray a little too closely to preaching, it’s that sense of humanity which always pulls it back.