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Human life is aimed at truth, even if the humans in question are lawyers. Nina Raine’s Consent begins with an invitation into the privileged life of new mum Kitty (Claudie Blakley) and her alpha male super-barrister husband Edward (Stephen Campbell Moore) as they drink champagne in their new home with their university mates, fellow lawyers Rachel (Sian Clifford) and Jake (Adam James), who already have children. The atmosphere is warm and real and we find ourselves sighing with satisfaction and a touch of envy at these winners of our meritocratic society who are surrounded by love, friendship, babies. Of course, this confident prosperity must rest on something.
The play’s title refers to the “consent” in sexual relations. A woman named Gayle (Heather Craney), on the day of her sister’s funeral, is raped. She turns to the law. It becomes a brutal, humiliating process for her but it’s just another day in the life for Edward who’s getting fed up listening to “bollocks in court”. Campbell Moore makes a compelling Edward, hubristic yet logical: “We’re not them. That’s why we’re paid to argue for them. Because they can’t string two fucking words together.” Can the ability to communicate convincingly shield him from the human condition?
Nina Raine began her career as a trainee director at the Royal Court and since has won numerous awards as both director and writer, including the Olivier Award for Best New Play with Tribes and the TMA Best Director Award for Unprotected. Consent, after a successful run at the National Theatre, has just transferred to the West End under the direction of Roger Michell.
Raine invites us to explore what psychotherapist Darian Leader calls the “possibility that human life is aimed at both success and failure and never simply at wealth, power and happiness,” especially in highly educated, intelligent people. Her 2011 play Tiger Country was about surgeons in a busy NHS hospital. In the operating room just as in court, egos rule. “I don’t think I’m God,” Edward protests with such innocuous candour that the audience burst out laughing.
Soon, the play’s title acquires a more ambiguous meaning. What does it mean to “consent” to marry, to have children, to tie up our future with someone who understands the rules but has no empathy? Can we “consent” to a purely transactional partnership? Adam James’s likeable rogue Jake cannot regret being unfaithful but expects Rachel to accept it because she too is a lawyer and they both know that staying together is the most logical outcome for the family. A very enjoyable bout of verbal “boxing” between Edward and awkward prosecutor Tim (Lee Ingleby) spirals out of control, and the object of this joust, actress Zara (Clare Foster), flirts back with the winner, regardless of the fact he is the married one. Claudie Blakley’s dishevelled and disillusioned Kitty seems to be the only one aware of the “corruption” that comes with being paid to cross-examine victims of rape and other abuses and yet even she is unable to escape the pull of destruction.
“Why do people do it?” asks Tim, who dreams of a family as he sits alone in his haunted flat. The set by Hildegard Bechtler is dark and efficient. A sofa and a sheet under Michell’s direction are a chance for an estranged couple to try humility, a softening of the heart, a surrender. Without saying a single word, the gods have disintegrated. Human life can begin. For a play about people who talk for a living, it is a genuine feat.
Consent continues at the Harold Pinter Theatre until August 11th 2018.