Thursday 27 April 2017

Consent – National Theatre, London

[seen 26/04/17]

The stage is a raised grey platform cutting the Dorfman in half, front to back. The pit audience are seated in traverse. There are three panels cut into the stage which function as inter-scene trapdoors. From underneath the stage, various costly sofas slide up from the depths for their scenes and then disappear back below. Above the stage, dozens and dozens of lampshades hang. Some of these descend for their appropriate scenes and then discreetly slip back into the lampshade crowd (designed by Hildegard Bechtler).

Maybe we’re meant to discern some key points about status-anxiety, modest wealth, “good taste,” and etc. I expect lampshade-fashion-experts relished this luminous psychodrama. For the rest of us, you could just about remember whose house was whose from the sofas (the positions of which some of the characters sometimes argue about).

The plot [yes, spoilers] is as follows: initially happy-seeming new-mum wife (Anna Maxwell Martin) is still angry that initially happy-seeming barrister husband (Ben Chaplin) had an affair five years earlier. Possibly because he has never said sorry. She embarks on an affair with initially happy-seeming barrister husband’s barrister frenemy, beardy-singleton barrister (Pip Carter). Initially happy-seeming husband barrister discovers initially happy-seeming new-mum wife’s affair. They have an argument and he rapes her. In the second half, they argue about this a lot more, she threatens to take him to court, he says she’s lying and mad; they all shout at each other, and at hilarious-bastard-barrister-friend-who-had-tonnes-of-affairs (Adam James) and at hilarious-bastard-barrister-friend-who-had-tonnes-of-affairs’s wife (Priyanga Burford).

In the first half, initially happy-seeming husband barrister and beardy-singleton barrister are also defending and prosecuting a rapist respectively. Just before the interval, badly-written-working-class-woman-who-was-raped (Heather Craney) turns up at one of the sets of sofas and lampshades to shout a bit.

There’s also biological-clock-singleton-Yerma-actress-lady (Daisy Haggard). She’s there to heavily underline themes by talking about Medea, start a relationship with beardy-singleton barrister, have him wrenched from her by his affair with initially happy-seeming new-mum wife, and eventually get back together with him after even all the characters in the play eventually lose interest in the whole plot.

[We learn early in the second part that badly-written-working-class-rape-victim-woman has hanged herself shortly after her shouting bit at the end of the first part. This is fine because she clearly wasn’t important. If she had been, the playwright (Nina Raine) would have given her more stage time. Instead, she simply serves to confirm the barristers’ view that people who aren’t paid to be be in court are cockroaches.]

Formally, the play is mildly interesting because it comes on like it’s an “About” play (about lawyers, about rape, about the legal system, about consent, about Greek tragedy, etc.), but it’s not. They’re just some things that the characters say some things about. In truth, Consent doesn’t rise above being a “who’s fucking who now?” play.

Imagine Tom Stoppard had written Closer, but wanted to pretend it was by David Hare. Then imagine he also wanted to heavily imply that it was also a sort of modern-day Greek tragedy (there’s a whole scene where the characters discuss Greek tragedy at a dinner party, FFS). Either the play wants tidying up so that it’s not such a cack-handed bit of sixth-form trying-to-sound-clever-the-whole-time, or it wants a production that isn’t trying to make it feel like it’s a sleek, perfectly-turned, West End-ready commercial beast. (It isn’t, it’s a messy bit of pseudo-intellectual posturing.)

The characters speak in endless aphorisms. While occasionally amusing, it isn’t half deadening. It is quickly established that we’re not meant to like any of them, at which point – when they start wanking on endlessly about their marriages and their opinions – wishing they’d all just stop and fuck off isn’t far behind.

Sure, sure, the unremitting triviality of the characters (they really are straight out of the would-be-Wilde mould) could be argued to be indicative of some wider societal malaise or other, but really it’s the author’s choice to saddle herself, and ultimately us, with them. Worse, they all feel more like badly constructed arguments than people. They have no redeeming features purely because the author doesn’t want them to have any. At which point the play largely stops functioning as drama and becomes more like nihilist soc’s entry into the debating contest: “the law is an ass, because people are assholes” it petulantly asserts.

Briefly, it’s also worth saying that this production (Roger Michell) also does the play no favours. It’s played in a curiously old-fashioned style – halfway between TV naturalism and 1950s weekly rep performances of The Importance of Being Earnest or Private Lives. The characters who fare best are those whose lives are continually a public show. Unfortunately, there are also sections where at least three different characters are required to break down emotionally. No one comes out of those bits well. It either needs to be more stylised, or actually convincing. I mean, I know Michael‘n’David worry about the old European Infection, but even a bit of hopping around stapling flowers to things and getting the tomato juice on would have improved this.

Being charitable, I suppose the play paints such a hilariously bleak picture of human relationships, that I could imagine quite warming to it in a different production – probably one that wasn’t trying so hard to be funny. With all the English class-system boredom edited out, and a bit of toning down of the THEMES, it could eventually be an ok play. At the moment, though, it only aspires to the condition of Art. Actually, no, it’s weirder than that, it’s actually like one of those awful Simon Gray plays from the seventies, produced almost like a satire of how futile and squalid those are, perhaps as a reflection of how futile and squalid the author feels human life to be. I can imagine a version being staged as a hilarious burlesque of Why The English Can’t Have Nice Theatre.

At the end of the day, it’s worth remembering that most people and many plays are better than this, and not getting too exercised about any of it; it’s only made up and isn’t made up nearly well enough to make any further claims on our time.


Anonymous said...

Finally! A friend and I have been waiting for someone to say these words for weeks. Going by everything else that's been said about this play, we were starting to think that we didn't understand theatre at all. So thank you. We feel validated.

Anonymous said...

It's C-grade Stoppard; and Stoppard's a B-grade writer.