Rape is not funny. How Rape victims are treated by the law and lawyers (not the same thing) might be laughable in some instances, but it is not funny either. Not funny ha-ha! nor funny peculiar. Consent strives to make important points about Rape, lawyers and the law but without any attempt at empathy. And with poltergeists.Nina Raine’s new play, Consent, now playing in the Dorfman Theatre at the National, is yet another disappointment – in a swathe of disappointments presided over by Artistic Director Rufus Norris. Once, not that long ago actually but for decades before that too, the National Theatre was a treasure trove for theatrical delights; no matter what time of the year, you were almost guaranteed that what you saw would be worthwhile. Very rare were there theatrical turkeys on the Olivier, Lyttleton or Cottesloe (as it then was) stages.
These days it is rare to find a genuine five star theatrical treat on those stages. Championing new work is essential, no question. But new work from established writers is not necessarily always worthwhile and, sometimes, that work is assumed to be ready for production when, truly, workshops and dramaturgical refinement are the best options.
There are many new plays better than Consent although, no doubt, the topics covered in Consent are ones that need agitation. What a woman who reports a rape goes through in 2017 is still harrowing, unacceptable and appalling. How the judicial system is weighed against women is still a travesty. How barristers are permitted to attack a woman’s character, history, views, dress sense in order to create doubt in the mind of a jury is inhumane. How the law permits a simple question – was there sexual activity against the wishes of the woman (or man)? – to be coloured by societal views is an example of the Law being an Ass.
But creating a gaggle of characters, none of whom are likeable and all of whom are types, to waltz around these issues while juggling infants, the demands of sofa locations, infidelities, strained friendships and poltergeists, is not the way. The writing needs to be crisper, smarter, more bruising. The stakes need to be higher, the characters real. Broadchurch could provide a pointer or twenty in that respect.
Roger Michell directs Raine’s play as well as it might be directed and Hildegard Bechtler’s set is minimalist and effective in exactly the ways you would expect, although a cloudbank of designer lamp shades is unusual, to say the least. Still, it gives you something to look at when the excoriating characters are saying excruciating things.
It’s a solid cast too, mostly, but none of them are really challenged. Adam James is in full unfaithful husband mode, while Priyanga Burford is his spiky, stern, and much more intelligent wife. Smooth and smarmy, Ben Chaplin is the kind of Defence Attorney Rumpole would have disowned, devious and silky, ruthlessly detached. As his wife, Anna Maxwell Martin provides a complex, almost impenetrable, but aloof and tight smiling, thinker; the kind of person who misses nothing.
With his gravelly voice in full animated feature mode, Pip Carter is the lugubrious and lonely Crown Prosecutor with a thing for poltergeists. Daisy Haggard plays the flighty actor whose friends set her up with Carter’s nerd. Heather Carney is the stricken woman whose allegation of rape lies at the centre of the action, as Carter and Chaplin tussle in Court over whether or not her allegation should result in a conviction.
But the failings in the writing prove insurmountable. Tension is never created, merely torpor. There is a lot of talk but little action. And a platform for making important points is wasted.
So, a note to Rufus Norris:
1. Plays need to have a theatricality to work on the stage. Otherwise they are just film or television scripts that would work better on, well, the cinema screen or the small screen.
2. That theatricality can come in a number of ways – astonishing acting, brilliant staging, thematic exposition. It doesn’t come with just people standing and talking, sometimes shouting.
3. There is not much more tiresome that sitting through theatre when all of the characters are awful people.
4. One thing more tiresome than watching examples of 3 is watching ludicrous depictions of the lives of lawyers, even vacuous, self-centred, rich barristers.
5. It is always best to make sure, in plays about the law, that someone who actually knows the law provides input to ensure that howlers do not occur. You know this because you credit a legal adviser. Sadly, that adviser has let you down. Seriously.
6. Bad lawyers, bad law, and bad legal situations are the province of television and restoration comedy. Also Shakespeare. And Opera. But not incisive drama for the stage.
7. The Ferryman is over three hours long and feels like 20 minutes. The first Act of Consent feels longer than both parts of Angels In America.
8. Good actors can not solve every problem created by a narrative lacking empathy.
9. Poltergeists suck.
10. Programme better material.