Consent review, Harold Pinter Theatre: A brilliantly knotty legal drama ★★★★★

Nina Raine's play about a rape trial is utterly gripping and essential viewing, says Nick Wells

Heather Craney (Gayle) and Stephen Campbell Moore (Edward) in Consent at the Harold Pinter Theatre (photos: Johan Persson)

If, like me, when the last bow has been taken, you enjoy nothing more than to chew over the evening’s entertainment, then make sure you’ve been brushing well. Because Nina Raine’s latest play is going to have you wearing your molars to the root – so tough and contentious are the issues you’ll be gnawing away on.

Advertisement

After an acclaimed opening at the National Theatre last year, Consent thoroughly deserves its transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre. It’s a play that needs to be seen: for the quality of its writing, its performances, and its contribution to a public conversation that is only just beginning.

Taking a critical look at the adversarial, point-scoring nature of the legal system, it questions whether justice in rape cases is best served in an arena where finding the truth appears less important than telling the neatest story. It shows how defining the narrative is crucial, and how it can be warped by prejudice and omission.

Gayle (Heather Crane) alleges she was raped after her sister’s funeral. Her assailant maintains that it was consensual. Acting for the defence, Edward (Stephen Campbell Moore) coldly and systematically exploits her history of depression in a sharp cross-examination, fundamentally undermining her case. But the accused’s history of repeated sexual criminality is deemed prejudicial, and therefore any mention of it is withheld from the case. Tim, the prosecuting lawyer, is an unconvincing and even unwilling advocate, and Gayle is left asking whose job it is to defend her.

Raine’s appraisal of the system is clear – down to how the working-class victim’s drunkenness is seen as a character flaw, even as the lawyers themselves rarely carry out a conversation without an open bottle to hand. But she also looks beyond the courtroom and examines the relationships of those charged with overseeing the law. Are their lives any more moral?  

(Clare Foster as Zara, Stephen Campbell Moore as Edward and Lee Ingleby as Tim (photos: Johan Persson)
Clare Foster as Zara, Stephen Campbell Moore as Edward and Lee Ingleby as Tim (photos: Johan Persson)

Edward’s marriage to Kitty (Claudie Blakley) simmers with the strain of his previous infidelity. And his emotional detachment, which serves him so well professionally, has permeated his private life so totally that Kitty is alienated by his need to rationalise every disagreement in legal argument.  

Their friend Tim (Lee Ingleby) is a perennial singleton who’s been set up with the gregarious Zara (Clare Foster), but he’s always been attracted to Kitty and can’t help but act on it. Jack and Rachel, with whom they all socialise, are no more functional. She having kicked him out for his unashamed adultery.

As their relationship becomes increasingly volatile, Kitty accuses Edward of marital rape, and all of the arguments from the courtroom are played out in the home. Only here all the messy emotions, irrationality, and stark human nature aren’t forced into the narrow constraints of jurisprudence. It pointedly illustrates how discerning right from wrong can sometimes come down to opinion, rather than fact.

The cast are excellent. Stephen Campbell Moore and Claudie Blakley (Kitty) present a totally engrossing portrayal of a complicated, mutually flawed couple. Lee Ingleby gives Tim a resoluteness that belies his hapless nature; and Clare Foster is lively and entertaining as Zara. 

Adam James manages to make Jake likeable, which is no mean feat; and Sian Clifford’s Rachel is enjoyably spiky. As Gayle, Heather Craney delivers an emotional performance that can render a silence palpable.

This is a play you’ll be talking about for a long time to come.

Consent is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 11th August 2018

Advertisement