There should be a word for a piece of art you enjoy at the time, but which sours as your distance from it increases. Personally, I think of it as “La La Landism”, because once the zip and crackle of that film’s song and dance sequences faded, all that remained was the memory of Ryan Gosling’s jazz splaining reign of terror.
Consent has a similar problem. It opens with two couples – one happy, one sniping – celebrating the birth of the happy couple’s baby. (And yes, it’s another real baby, just like The Ferryman: there’s never been a better time to put your infant daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington.) Over the next two and a bit hours, this foursome bickers, boozes, adulters, shouts and recriminates. Ed, a barrister, swings from doting dad to deceitful husband to rage-filled cuckold; his book publicist wife Kitty is driven mad by his inability to say sorry for an old indiscretion, and so commits one of her own. Their friends Jake and Rachel, also lawyers, weather a storm in their own marriage. The main characters are rounded out by prosecuting counsel Tim – who has long nursed a crush on Kitty, and is desperate for children – and actress Zara, who is preparing to play Medea and auditioning for a part in a legal drama. The six of them orbit each other, tangling and untangling, until their equilibrium is restored at the end: in the intervening time, however, all urban upper-middle-class human misery is here.
With the exception of two overly static scenes in the second half, the drama surges forwards, helped by a well-cast set of actors: Claudie Blakley, as Kitty, seems to be channelling the Vicar of Dibley’s Alice in her mannerisms and her half-up, half-down hairstyle. Adam James as Jake reprises a role he played when the play was first performed at the National last year: his easy bastard confidence is key to the play’s living-room naturalism. The charge against these lawyers is the same one a typical London theatre audience should face: they are effortlessly well-off, a little too pleased with their own cleverness, and a little too glib about the problems of people unlike them. The frequent laughter was often prompted by uncomfortable recognition.
When the six main characters circle one another, at Christmas drinks and in coffee shops, the dialogue sparkles. Jake, confessing to adultery, bewails his wife’s lack of forgiveness, insisting that the point of marriage is to find someone who accepts you, flaws and all. “That’s your mother,” Kitty shoots back. Tim, trying to seduce Kitty, is accused by Ed of using the poltergeist in his new flat as a “wingman”. There’s even a none-more-metropolitan elite conversation about whether to plant one or two kisses on an acquaintance. (Please, can we agree on one?)
The trouble comes when we see outside this charmed and cursed circle. Ed and Tim, rivals for Kitty’s love, are also fighting in court. Ed, defending a man accused of rape, skewers the complainant Gayle on the stand: had she been drinking? Why didn’t she kick the man out of her house afterwards? As the prosecution, Tim also lets Gayle down, unable to help her tell her story and unable to explain why her mental health issues were aired in court but not the man’s previous convictions. Tim and Ed know the “rules” of their encounter; Gayle is bemused, separated from them by class and her emotional involvement. She turns up later at their Christmas drinks party, horrified to discover that the courtroom enemies are real-life friends. (Well, frenemies.)
There’s a delicate point here, about how dealing with everyday human misery can numb you, and how bleak humour and tasteless jokes are frequent coping strategies in all kinds of jobs. But Gayle’s bad Eliza Doolittle accent and her small amount of stage time – the same actor is doubled to play another character in the second half – leave a sour taste, as if her rape matters only for how it affects the marriage and happiness of Ed and Kitty. The play’s construction appears to endorse rather than merely present this view; I found that as uncomfortable as any of the other tortured, complicated conversations we have about rape.
Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1
This article appears in the 06 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family