Please note: I was given complimentary tickets for Consent in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.
On the day Harvey Weinstein was arrested and charged with rape and several counts of sexual abuse, I sat in the Harold Pinter theatre waiting for the curtain to rise on Consent, a play by Nina Raine. Originally a sellout success at the National Theatre in 2017, Consent is now showing at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End. Since the play’s initial staging in 2017, it is not too dramatic to say that the world has changed, and Raine has reportedly been unsure of the play’s reception in today’s #MeToo era.
Consent is an intelligent, thought-provoking play with laugh-out loud witty dialogue; what makes it more provocative to today’s audience is the ambiguity Raine spins around her characters and their actions. She deliberately delves into the grey area that surrounds ‘he said / she said’ type accusations, casting the audience as judge and jury: who is to be believed? And does justice give way to whoever can spin the most convincing argument?
The play follows a group of upper middle-class barristers and their tangled love lives. At the start of the play, one of the barristers, Jake, is revealed as a serial cheater: his wife Rachel finds out, is devastated, and threatens divorce and sole custody of their child. This domestic upheaval triggers another in the lives of their friends, Kitty and Edward: old wounds resurface, and another marriage falls apart at the seams.
Whilst drama plays out in the barristers’ domestic lives, another takes centre stage in the courtroom: a woman attempts to get her assailant sentenced for rape, but her testimony is torn to shreds, leaving her distraught. Another, more murky, rape accusation is made later in the play, when Kitty accuses her husband of marital rape. Is she telling the truth, or is she motivated by a desire for revenge after his affair?
During the interval, as I leant back in my seat, I overheard a young woman chatting about one of the characters to a friend. ‘I just don’t understand,’ she said, a frown of bewilderment clear in her voice, ‘how there could be any sympathy for someone who cheats on his wife like that. Why would anyone take his side?’ She blatantly thought any signs of sympathy for a serial cheater were wholly unrealistic. Ironically, in the second half of the play, it is serial-cheater Jake who stands up for Kitty and condemns her husband’s actions: ‘if she said no, then it’s rape,’ he states unequivocally. Part of the strength of Consent lies in Raine’s ability to write complicated characters: no one is portrayed as either wholly bad, or wholly good, and sometimes unlikely alliances are formed. Rachel disagrees with Jake and sides with Edward, doubting that Kitty is speaking the full truth.
Indeed, no character in Consent is able to hold the moral high ground for long. In the play, both wives are unfaithful too, but they are motivated by revenge, wishing to wound their philandering husbands. By the end of the play, the women end up back with their spouses, having been begged for forgiveness.
Female forgiveness is a central theme to the play: Edward continually tells Kitty she must forgive him, begging her on his knees, suggesting there is no point to his remorse if forgiveness does not follow. Even the women’s seemingly unselfish forgiveness is questionable, however. Is their pardon freely given, or is their choice to give their marriage another chance born of necessity mixed with convenience? Consent illustrates how the law cannot be relied upon for justice for women. When Kitty seeks the advice of a lawyer over gaining custody of her child, she’s told that any accusation she makes of domestic abuse against herself by her husband will not be taken into account when the court considers custody matters. Her husband, however, plots accusations of mental instability, bringing up her post-natal depression to undermine her parental responisbility.
It is only the men in the play, too, that are shown as successful within their work. Edward and Jake engage in convoluted discussions at which the women roll their eyes or simply observe in silence. The men take over the stage with their linguistic fencing matches, studded with legalese, each clearly intoxicated by the sound of his own voice, and the power he has to win an argument. The women, in contrast, are either ineffectual or absent from their jobs: Kitty is on maternity leave, her friend Zara has trouble landing an acting role, and Rachel gets shushed when she tries to put forward her advice as a barrister. The lack of professional success in the women’s lives also raises the question of how much their ‘forgiveness’ is financially motivated. If they were able to easily support themselves and their children, would they be so willing to take back their erring partners?
In Consent, it is the women who are forced to compromise, whilst the men get away with their behaviour: lying, cheating, even rape. Edward does learn to say ‘I’m sorry,’ by the end (formerly he would only say ‘I apologise,’ thus admitting no personal guilt or liability), but by that point you’re definitely thinking ‘sorry’ doesn’t really cut it.
Consent is an exceptional play; it leaves you questioning your assumptions, probing your understanding of moral grey areas and asking yourself where you would fall on the sides of the arguments put forward. I would have appreciated a more empowering ending for Consent’s female leads, and I would love to see fewer plays about male barristers behaving badly, and more about female lawyers changing the world. It’s plays like Consent, however, that highlight the need for a fairer system in which women can navigate their own lives on an equal footing with men. Although Consent shows women accepting their lot rather than defying the status quo, it will hopefully inspire others to demand their right for freer choices and greater independence in the future.
You can book tickets for Consent here. The play runs until mid August.