REVIEW: “Consent” at the National Theatre

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Anna Maxwell Martin, Ben Chaplin, Adam James, and Priyanga Buford in “Consent”

LONDON—Nina Raine’s new play is called Consent, and with a title like that, you probably think you know what it’s about. You’re not wrong, but to Raine’s immense credit, you’re not exactly right. On its surface, Consent is about a London rape case, but it ultimately uses that morally rigid, hot-button issue as a springboard for a million other conversations. It’s is a spiky, powerful piece of work whose occasional rough edges are more than smoothed over by incendiary performances and Raine’s savage wit.

The show, playing in the NT’s Dorfman theatre in a production directed by Roger Mitchell, centers on two couples. Edward (Ben Chaplin) is a barrister, and his wife Kitty (an outstanding Anna Maxwell Martin) is a literary agent who’s just given birth to their only child. Their friends Jake (Adam James) and Rachel (Priyanga Buford) are barristers as well. Both couples are friendly with Tim (Pip Carter), who prosecutes for the crown and finds himself on the opposite side of Edward in the rape case that takes up much of the play’s first act. Tensions of lust, love, and business erupt in various permutations, testing long-time bonds and calling into question the slippery nature of truth.

In a way, Raine treats lawyers here like Margaret Edson treated doctors in her 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winner W;t. That play was, among other things, a polemic against the way that a human body, so full of intricate beauty, could be reduced to inputs and outputs for machine-brained glory seekers. Consent is also about many things, but most tantalizingly, it’s about how lawyers have a habit of arguing themselves out of their own humanity. It shows us how, with enough crafty lip service, two opposing forces almost always appear equally right, and how spending your life exploiting binary thought can wreak havoc on your personal relationships.

There are some clunky meta-references to Greek tragedy and a few dramatic outbursts that stretch plausibility, but largely, Raine teases out these themes in exhilarating fashion. That her characters are brilliant, and thus very funny, doesn’t hurt — the play loves language, in all of its messiness, and that makes for a deeply involving two hours.

One cannot think of commenting on the production without lauding Rick Fisher’s deliciously unorthodox lighting design. Several mismatched fixtures hang from the Dorfman’s low ceiling, strategically bobbing in and out of the action to highlight or shadow certain characters. It’s a simple visual message, but it’s rattling when you catch on, especially as the action begins to mirror itself in act two: two situations may initially appear the same, but pay attention to who’s shining the light. It’s not a particularly easy message to swallow, but it echoes in the mind long after the house bulbs brighten.

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