Review by Giddy Pillai
Many moons ago I lived a short life as a commercial litigator. One day, not more than a month or so in, I found myself ugly crying, in my mercilessly glass-walled office, over a case that had landed on my desk. A skydiving excursion had gone horribly wrong, and had left a teenage girl with particularly devastating lifelong injuries. My managing partner, a kind and patient man, gently assured me that the girl was going to be ‘fairly compensated’, and that the sole purpose of the case was to determine which insurance company would end up paying her. I pulled myself together and got on with my job, but a little voice in my gut whispered that perhaps I was a little too soft-shelled for this career path.
Consent opens in a half-furnished living room where a handful of harder-boiled lawyers than I chew the fat. This crew are veteran barristers, and their playground is the grimy terrain of criminal defence. They encounter cases that centre around horrifying conduct on the daily, and the job they’ve signed up for is to represent the people who might very well have committed it. It’s a tough ask, and in order to pull it off, they need to turn off their personal feelings, suspend moral judgment, and focus on making the best possible case for each client, trusting that the system will work out the justice of it all.
Playwright Nina Raine wastes no time in unveiling the emotional desensitisation that a person can experience when they are immersed in this kind of environment. We’re less than five minutes in when Jake (Jeremy Waters) announces in bored tones that he’s been ‘raping pensioners’. His wife Rachel (Jennifer Rani) retorts that she’s been indulging in a spot of sexually motivated murder. Not to be outdone, their friend Ed (Nic English) quips that he’s currently ‘incredibly promiscuous as well as being a rapist’. They’re talking, of course, about the defendants they’re currently representing, laughing as they swill champagne and casually try on their clients’ less polished accents. Ed’s wife Kitty (Anna Samson), the only non-barrister in the room, makes a show of being aghast at the lack of empathy on display, but she laughs along indulgently. This is a world of privilege and amorality, filled with characters who are eloquent, charming and overflowing with witty repartee, but ultimately pretty unsympathetic.
The play unfolds against the backdrop of a rape trial, in which Ed faces off his long-time frenemy Tim (Sam O’Sullivan), an equally jaded Crown prosecutor. Like the other lawyers, Tim is emotionally walled off and conditioned to view law as a game. It’s less a spoiler and more a sad inevitability that, in their hands, the justice system does not deliver anything remotely resembling justice for the unfortunate rape victim, Gayle (Jessica Bell). A straight-talking working-class woman, she sees through the game at hand, but is powerless to change the rules. In a brutal cross-examination, Ed, dripping in sophistry, runs self-satisfied rings around her. She meets his attack with grit and credibility, but it doesn’t matter. She’s in his court, and the game is rigged.
Through the lens of Gayle’s rape case, Consent pulls the curtains wide open to expose the contradictions and hypocrisies that are baked into legal rhetoric at the deepest level. Raine’s writing is pithy and incisive, and the performances across the board are nuanced, grounded and truthful. The combination is compelling, and my theatre-buddy – a law school bestie – and I spend the intermission staring into space and questioning our life choices.
But ultimately Consent isn’t about Gayle. Her case serves as a springboard for a deeper dive into the implications that hyper-intellectualised thought, emotional detachment and an adversarial mindset – ‘lawyerly’ traits – can have on a personal level. As Gayle fades out of view, the three central relationships of the play – between Ed and Kitty, Jake and Rachel and Tim and his new partner Zara (Anna Skellern) – come into focus. These partnerships are torn wide open, exposing a litany of infidelities, betrayals, legalistic justifications and retributive acts. Raine poses a series of philosophical questions that live squarely in grey areas: When does infidelity really begin? If an action taken in secret causes no pain until it is uncovered, is it the action that’s harmful or merely the discovery? What does consent look like between long term partners, and how might that shift as their relationship changes?
This is interesting territory, and it's handled skilfully, but I can’t help but come away with mixed feelings about Gayle’s place in the story. On some level, I feel like her trauma has been exploited as a plot device. It’s not quite fair to say that the connection between her case and the lawyers’ domestic lives is forced – there are real and plausible parallels between the barristers’ professional identities, grotesquely on display in Gayle’s case, and the personal qualities they bring into their home lives. Perhaps it is just jarring to shift focus from a character who has been violated – both physically as well as by the very system ostensibly set up to protect her – to a set of characters who willingly participate in that system and who often seem to be the architects of their own misery. But in a play that feeds off grey areas, perhaps me feeling this way is part of the point. At the end of the day, I realise that I’ve been mulling over these questions for a whole weekend, and that this itself is a credit to Consent. It’s a piece of theatre that’s really made me think, and in a way that will stay with me for some time.
A lot of kudos lies with Outhouse Theatre’s thoughtful production. The cast is uniformly excellent. Every actor brings depth, humour and sensitivity to the table, managing to evoke empathy and understanding for a set of characters that aren’t easy to love. Jessica Bell is a standout as Gayle, ensuring that, narrative device or no, her story is not easily forgotten. Soham Apte’s set design is clever and symbolic. A striking, semi-reflective glass panel runs along the back of the stage. Aided by Ryan McDonald’s lighting, this allows the audience to occasionally spot a character with parallels to the main action in the background of a scene. From time to time, when the light hits right, I catch a glimpse of my own reflection, and feel gently prompted to reflect on how the questions that the play poses arise in my own life. It’s an effective device, and I suspect it would be even more compelling in a space with a little more real estate than the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre.
In his note in the program, director Craig Baldwin points out that when the word ‘consent’ first made its way into the English language, it meant ‘to feel together’. The way we tend to use the term today. as some sort of minimum standard for what qualifies as agreement, feels like a far cry from these origins. I can’t help but think that law, and the way it uses language, probably has a lot to answer for here. As Tim says dryly to Kitty, ‘cross-examination is a very damaging form of communication’. Looking at Consent through this lens, I’m a little more convinced that Gayle’s experience and the lawyers’ domestic woes do indeed belong in the same story.
Note: This review was based on a preview performance of Consent.