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Consent review at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London – ‘witty and bitter’

Anna Maxwell Martin, Ben Chaplin, Adam James and Priyanga Burford in Consent at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Nina Raine knows her shit. Or, rather, her shits. She excels at writing charismatic, intelligent, affluent, articulate characters who behave like total shits. Her new play, Consent, is so full of them, it’s in danger of requiring manual disimpaction.

Edward and Tim are barristers who are both involved in a rape case, albeit on opposing sides. It’s not a straightforward case as the woman in question liked a drink and neglected to give a thorough police statement, but both men have their jobs to do.

Initially it feels like this trial will be central to the play but it ends up being background to the characters’ relationships with one another. Edward and his wife Kitty are still a little dazed after the birth of their first child. Their friends Jake and Rachel (also barristers) are dealing with the fallout from his infidelity. They all try to set their single friend Tim up with an actor, Zara (who’s on hand to elucidate Raine’s ideas about Greek tragedy, women, and vengeance). Zara’s also a woman in her mid-30s woman with an as yet unused womb – surely the 21st equivalent of Chekhov’s shotgun.

The barristers talk about their clients as if they were one with them. They say things like: “I’ve done a lot of raping recently.” But the gulf between ‘I’ and ‘them’ is vast. These are people who say things like, “of course I have disposable income I rent in zone 4,” while Edward argues against the necessity for empathy in the courtroom.

Raine is great at barbed, wine-fuelled dialogue (the characters’ blood is about two-thirds Sancerre) and the ways people use words to wound the ones they love. The Act I dinner scene in Tribes is still one of the best things she’s written and there’s a spectacularly volatile scene of Truth or Dare here, but her plotting is often rocky and Consent is no different. The story feels like a frame off which to hang her ideas about justice, love, lies and forgiveness.

She also uses the sole working class character, Gayle, the woman who was raped, as little more than a dramatic catalyst – a source of disruption; strong as Heather Craney’s performance is in the role, she exists purely to make the other characters question themselves. It’s a tired, tedious device.

Staged in the round under Hildegard Bechtler’s canopy of lampshades, Roger Michell’s production is, like the writing, precise and elegant, if a little too tidy.

The performances are all strong. Anna Maxwell Martin is suitably on-edge as the new mother who can’t forgive her husband’s past indiscretions, and Ben Chaplin does fine work as the emotionally contained Edward. Priyanga Burford and Adam James have a plausibly complex rapport as Rachel and Jake, while Pip Carter’s Tim is the most intriguingly enigmatic of the characters, the prickliest of Raine’s erudite shits.

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Bitter and witty, if a little too neat, play about marriage, truth, and people’s capacity for forgiveness