Culture Editor Ilina Jha reviews the Crescent Theatre’s production of Consent, praising the ancient Greek influences in this modern revenge tragedy

Written by Ilina Jha

Trigger warnings for Consent include: rape, infidelity, mental health issues, suicide

What is justice, and what does it cost to serve it? Who gets to decide who is telling the truth? What does it take to commit a crime, including not asking for consent? Originally performed at the National Theatre in 2017 and now playing at the Crescent Theatre until Saturday 15th JuneConsent (written by Nina Raine and directed by Andrew Cowie) follows the lives of a group of adults as issues of infidelity and marital rape cause their lives to unravel. Tim (Mark Payne) and Ed (Scott Westwood) are the opposing lawyers in a rape case, but the line between professional and private life becomes increasingly blurred as the high stakes of their case become entangled in their relationships. Ed’s wife, Kitty (Grace Cheatle), struggles with her husband’s previous infidelity and being unhappy in her marriage; as she witnesses the breakdown of the marriage between Jake (James David Knapp) and Rachel (Perdita Lawton), Kitty wonders how she could get revenge.

The play draws heavily on ancient Greek tragedy

Consent is as much about revenge as it is about rape and consent—characters seek revenge when they feel that justice (personal or legal) has not been served. This ranges from the rape claimant Gayle (Katie Merriman) and the play draws heavily on ancient Greek tragedy, such as overt references to Medea and the lawyers and judges of the court acting like faulty Greek gods as they mete out questionable judgements. In this way, Raine crafts her own ‘revenge tragedy,’ albeit one in which most of the characters die metaphorically rather than literally. Revenge is shown to have a devastating effect on all, including the avenger. Cowie further emphasises the play’s ancient Greek influence by using a white platform space as the performance area (reminiscent of the orchestra acting space in ancient Greece) and having the actors sit on six black chairs when offstage to create a chorus effect. A further six white chairs are used as props onstage—the total of twelve chairs represents the twelve members of a jury. In the show programme, Cowie explains that he wanted to avoid a ‘naturalistic’ approach in his direction, following in the footsteps of Roger Michell, who directed the original National Theatre production. Cowie’s approach certainly works—the bareness of the stage and props emphasises the emotional stakes at the heart of this play, while the black and white colours represent the ineffective black-and-white model of morality and human behaviour that the criminal justice system subscribes to. As Raine’s play shows, human behaviour and codes of morality are much greyer and far more complex.

Merriman powerfully performs Gayle’s anger and trauma from being failed by the justice system

Just as grey and complex are the characters of Consent. Raine takes us on a fascinating journey where we find ourselves hating a character one moment then feeling oddly respectful of them in another. The cast members do a tremendous job at navigating the different aspects of their characters. Merriman powerfully performs Gayle’s anger and trauma from being failed by the justice system, blaming Ed for cross-examining her cruelly and Tim for failing to prosecute effectively. Other than Gayle, there are no clear victims or criminals in this play. When Kitty cheats on Ed with Tim in order to, as she puts it, ‘show [him] how it feels,’ we almost applaud her for this revenge. However, Tim’s girlfriend Zara (Steph Urquhart) reminds both Kitty and us that acts of revenge have larger consequences. Kitty’s revenge satisfies her personal sense of justice, but she inflicts injustice and hurt on Zara.

A chilling and powerful play

A scene in which Tim and Ed help Zara prepare for an audition by acting out barristers in court serves to reveal more about their characters and their ways of communicating, as well as the underlying tensions that fracture their supposed friendship. Ed uses the guise of playing at cross-examination in order to ascertain Tim’s attraction to Kitty, and he wields a detached, cross-examination communication style in his personal life, which is hurtful and destructive. It is only in the wake of Kitty’s affair that Ed’s behaviour changes, and we see emotion and hurt behind the tough façade. However, our sympathies are tested again when Kitty accuses Ed of marital rape, a case that proves tougher for the audience to judge than Gayle’s.

Overall, Consent is a chilling and powerful play about the ways in which the criminal justice system fails to truly judge and punish human behaviour. In a country that still has a sexual assault conviction rate of less than 3%, Consent is as urgent now as it was in 2017.

Rating: 4/5

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