Nina Raine’s new drama, Consent, can now be seen in a stunning in-the-round production at the National Theatre’s small Dorfman auditorium – but the play is so good (and has been so well reviewed) that it will not be surprising if it transfers to the West End. Or even to Broadway, despite its essential Englishness. American audiences will have no difficulty with its themes of rape (thus the significance of the title), marriage, love and infidelity – but the workings of the English legal system, and why we have both barristers and solicitors, whereas they need only lawyers (though they use the euphemism “attorneys”), might baffle some less-travelled, non-Brit playgoers. Other countries have adversarial legal systems, and the American legal profession is even more cutthroat and vicious than the British – but only those that share the UK’s legal traditions (and, for non-Brit readers, the Scottish arrangement is even more arcane) can appreciate the nuances of Britain’s batty wigs, gowns and big legal fees.
As Consent’s reviews have varied from “modern classic” to “unreservedly recommended,” the play’s continued success is certain. It’s not a courtroom drama, but another of this dazzling young playwright’s heart-searchers, where ideas and arguments seem paramount only until you get hooked on the characters’ emotions and fates. Just as happens in Greek tragedy – in an example of which the piece’s unlikeliest character, the broody actress Zara (Daisy Haggard), zanily discusses whether her Medea will be played with a Scottish, Northern Irish or Yorkshire accent.
Most of the dramatis personae of Consent are broody. The piece opens with new mother, Kitty (Anna Maxwell Martin at her considerable best), handing her baby to family friend and wannabe godfather, thirty-something barrister, Jake (Adam James, whose winsomeness is about to show some edge). I don’t ever recall seeing a real baby on stage before, but this extremely well-behaved infant is Misha Wakefield Raine. (As Ms Raine’s son has made his stage début at the age of three months, I think we can confidently predict his future.)
Jake dotes on his own two children whose mother is fellow barrister, Rachel (Priyanga Burford). They have another infant, plus little Jimmy, who is at the stage of calling himself “you” rather than “I” because everyone else addresses him as “you.” Kitty’s barrister husband, Edward (Ben Chaplin, who chillingly convinced me that his character had aged visibly in the course of two hours), wants another child so badly that his attempts to conceive one raises legal questions. Zara is desperate for a child, but (at first) fails to fall for (yet) another barrister, Tim (Pip Carter, whose nasal bass voice could be heard even when facing away from you), who also badly wants kids. The sole exception to this rampant philoprogenitiveness is Kitty herself, who goes to an extreme in her desire to go back to work. No spoilers here, but the relationships among these six characters get complicated, and raise questions of faithfulness, separation, divorce and the legal niceties that surround these.
There is a seventh character, Gayle (Heather Craney), who has been raped the evening following her sister’s funeral. She is not middle-class, as are the other six, and her treatment by the court in the legal scenes not only raises issues of class, but also whether the rules of the legal game being played don’t actually preclude her getting justice.
This co-production with the ever-inventive Out of Joint company is niftily directed by Roger Michell (who is married to Anna Maxwell Martin) so that the action flows and the scenes meld into each other rapidly, but without ever being rushed. He has a sly trick of getting his actors to move a bit of furniture or blow out a candle, marking a beat and a pause, before exiting – which makes the fast-moving drama feel unhurried. Hildegard Bechtler’s minimal sets are a display of ceiling fixtures that make you feel you’re in the lighting department of Harrods or Selfridges plus a trap door from which sofas, chairs and tables mesmerizingly pop up, sometimes laden with dizzying decorations.
As a playwright, Nina Raine seems to be inspired by big issues, from her first, Rabbit, dealing with illness and the battle between the sexes, Tiger Country and the medical profession, Tribes and family life complicated by profound deafness, and now the lawyers of Consent. Whatever her next subject, you can be certain it will be of importance to the way we live now, and that however painful her depiction of it might be, she will maintain her good humour, and find something comic as well as tragic about it.