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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Consent
National Theatre Summer 2017; Harold Pinter Theatre Summer 2018

Consent is the wrong title for a play that is really about something(s) else, and what it is really about is not presented particularly coherently, originally or effectively. 

We are introduced to two married couples and a single friend (a third woman will later join to even things out). Four of the six are barristers, and two of them are currently on opposite sides of a rape case. 

The play then leaves them for a short while to watch its seventh character, the rape victim, being failed by the legal system as the prosecutor has to play by the rules while the defence lawyer takes the standard tack of destroying her credibility. 

But the whole rape case is a McGuffin, quickly dropped and forgotten while the play turns its attention elsewhere.

It touches on the morality of a lawyers' professional ability to reduce everything to debating games, on the inability of some people to apologise and for others to forgive, on the life-changing effect of becoming parents, on the inexplicable nature of love and desire, and probably a few other things. 

But mainly it is about marital infidelity. One of the husbands is a serial adulterer, and his wife finally has enough and throws him out, only for them to later reconcile in a kind of armed truce. 

The other husband had an affair years ago which his wife still resents, to the extent that she goes out and has one of her own just to make him suffer as she did. 

Husbands betray wives, wives betray husbands, friends betray friends, people betray confidences – whatever playwright Nina Raine thinks her play is about, its proper title would be Betrayal if Pinter had not already used the word for a (much better) play about the same things. 

Whatever its title or subject, Consent's dramaturgy is clumsy and ineffective. Putting aside the red herring of the rape case, too much of what goes on is blatantly authorial manipulation of characters without regard for logic or consistency. 

This is the kind of play in which the couple who seem most normal and happy will prove to have the deepest problems. 

This is the kind of play in which the women will all agree that the one unattached guy is an unattractive loser who even smells bad, and then two of them will fall madly in love with him and fight over him. 

This is the kind of play in which the pattern of everyone always taking an unexpected position in a debate or sympathising with the unexpected person becomes so consistent as to be expected, and as each new scene begins you know exactly what everyone is going to say or do because it will be whatever is least likely. 

This is the kind of play in which a couple talking about an absent couple make it obvious to each other and the audience that they're really talking about themselves. 

This is the kind of play in which a game of Truth Or Dare is introduced out of nowhere, just to get some truths told that the playwright couldn't find any other way to get in. 

This is the kind of play in which a doorbell rings in mid-party and an Uninvited Guest appears to shake things up and then disappear again. 

And this is the kind of play in which someone says (I'm paraphrasing) 'I want to bring you down until you're as unhappy as I am and only then can we connect' and they end up kneeling on the floor clutching each other – neither of them evidently having ever read or seen Look Back In Anger and noticing that the whole sequence is stolen bodily from Osborne. 

Consent was a success in a brief run at the National Theatre last summer, but with a partially new cast for the transfer it seems to have lost its way. 

The actors all, without exception, seem to be floundering about in the attempt to make coherent characterisations out of the random and sometimes contradictory bits and pieces the playwright gives them, and director Roger Michell doesn't seem to have offered much help beyond 'When in doubt, either overact wildly or underplay to the point of invisibility.'

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Consent - Harold Pinter Theatre 2018  
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