Consent opens in an unapologetically upper-middle class household: recent parents, Kitty and her barrister-husband Ed (Claudie Blakley and Stephen Campbell Moore), are unpacking vintage light fittings for their new home, and squabbling over where their sofas should go. Their lawyer friends Jake and Rachel (Adam James and Sian Clifford) are there with the champagne to raise ‘a toast to Kitty’s vagina’ for producing baby Leo. Later, Kitty and Ed try to decode the subtext in their friends’ stilted conversation: is Jake having an affair and does Rachel know about it? Meanwhile Kitty’s friend, Zara (Clare Foster) is auditioning for the part of a lawyer in a TV drama, as the friends try to set her up with their prosecuting-counsel pal, Tim (Lee Ingleby), who worries he has moved into a haunted house.
Ed and Tim soon find themselves battling one another in court: Ed defending an accused rapist against Tim’s prosecution. The victim, Gayle (Heather Craney) asks plaintively why no lawyer represents her. Cross-examination delves into her history but leaves her attacker’s previous behaviour unexamined. Ed explains that presumption of innocence rests on the belief that it’s better for guilty men to go free than an innocent man to be convicted. But why is that better, asks Gayle. The lawyers have no meaningful answer for her.
Greek tragedy is an ever-present influence on Nina Raine’s smart, sparky script: Zara is rehearsing the role of Medea, and wondering why they don’t write parts like that anymore. If Lear were a woman, comes Kitty’s reply, everyone would say it was her hormones. In the second act, when one partner accuses the other of using their child as a weapon, we are clearly meant to think of the catastrophic revenge Medea takes on Jason when she weaponises their sons to injure him. And while Kitty never mentions The Oresteia by name, her questions about vengeance and justice, and which is more appropriate in the context, are pure Aeschylus, even if they are delivered with many more good jokes.
Roger Michell guides the play beautifully through the violent repercussions of clashing sexual politics, and the cast wring every laugh from the dialogue. Tim apologises to Kitty for the fact that his food ‘tastes of cupboard.’ ‘Oh Christ,’ sobs Ed. ‘I haven’t cried like this since prep school.’ The more traumatised Ed is, the funnier Campbell Moore becomes: in a moment of pure fury, he screams that his rival is an ‘opportunist prick using his poltergeist as a wing man’.
No-one maintains moral high ground for long. Jake wails that his wife should be ‘someone who’s just going to let you be who you are.’ ‘That’s your mother,’ Kitty snaps, her sympathies with the absent Rachel. But as Zara says to Kitty later on, ‘You think you’re so empathetic. You’re fucking ruthless.’
The contested rape of the second act is less clear-cut than the courtroom drama of the first. We watch the characters turn their living-rooms into courtrooms, and pay off courtroom grudges in their bedrooms. And when it comes to the murky areas of consent and choice, particularly within a marriage, as Helena Kennedy’s programme essay puts it, ‘the courts are poor places for a resolution that satisfies the warring sides.’ This bracingly clever, bleakly funny play offers no easy answers to any of its questions: what is justice, what is vengeance, and which is right?