Consent at National Theatre: a missed opportunity to give voice to survivors

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Nina Raine’s Consent, a co-production between National Theatre and Out of Joint which plays 28 March – 17 May 2017 deals with opposing views on a rape court case. Kate Lovell finds a missing voice is obscured by upper-middle class suburbia.

Ben Chaplin in Consent.

Ben Chaplin as Edward in Consent. Photograph: Sarah Lee

Nina Raine’s Consent sees two barristers enacting the machinery of the law whilst embroiled in their own lives. The title of this show and its opening suggest an exploration of a topic that is controversial, complex and highly emotive. Beginning with a family scene where a group of barristers are celebrating the birth of a baby, their references to the rape cases that they are working on, champagne in hand, are casual and callous.

The two lead males, Ed and Tim, are working on opposing sides. Immediately after the middle-class suburban opening, we are thrust into a scene that is cleverly packed with the inherent flaws of our justice system when it comes to issues of sexual consent.

Tim bowls into a room with an anxious rape survivor about to give evidence at her trial, and proceeds to rattle off reams of legalese at her, and without so much as an introduction. No, he isn’t her lawyer, he represents the crown. Yes, the accused does have his own representation, but the complainant does not. She begins to explain what happened – he explains that, for legal reasons, he cannot hear her side of the story before the trial.

His refusal to acknowledge her account of the assault speaks volumes: he interrupts, he silences, he rejects and, ultimately, he walks away. This one scene opens the floor to a much-needed debate about the many ways in which the legal system fails rape survivors.

Anna Maxwell Martin and Heather Craney in Consent

Anna Maxwell Martin as Kitty and Heather Craney as Gayle. Photograph: Sarah Lee

It is, then, bewildering when the rape case quickly fades into the background. The play isn’t about consent at all. It is a drama about a group of adulterous and morally repugnant upper-middle class intellectuals. While the dialogue is slick and witty, delivered by highly educated and articulate characters, their affairs and broken marriages are not exciting. When the opening has introduced us to such an urgent topic, this is maddening.

Raine’s intention could be to juxtapose the heady realm that these barristers inhabit with the brutal reality of rape. The woman who Tim and Ed defend and oppose respectively in court is Gayle, the only working class character in the play. She does burst their bubble, interrupting a Christmas gathering with the reality of her pain, and the stark contrast is evident in this scene. But after this point, Gayle is disposed of in a throwaway sentence post-interval.

The lack of regard the central characters have for Gayle becomes a bitter irony; Raine does not leave herself space to develop this important voice. The barristers will not empathise with or hear Gayle, but it does the subject a disservice to use this as a metaphor for the silencing of rape survivors in society. This is a lost opportunity to give voice.

Raine conducted years of research about the legal system, observing cases and talking to top barristers. It’s disappointing that little of this research feels present in the final production. The true experiences and views of rape survivors is side-lined on stage in the same way it is in our court rooms.

Consent is on at the National Theatre until 17 May, including a Captioned performance 24 April and Audio Described performances 28 April and 29 April. See here for full listing information.