- Consentby Nina Raine
Nina Raine's Consent, directed by Roger Michell, offered a provocative and at times exceedingly uncomfortable portrait of a systemic lack of empathy toward victims of sexual assault and rape. Consentis designed to provoke, to shock, to trouble audiences. Raine's characters represent the privileged, degreed, professional middle-class—four of them lawyers. In the opening scene of the play, they casually quipped and verbally jousted about sex, rape, and consent in humorous fashion, often referring to their own court cases. Raine's cleverly designed banter prompted laughter from the audience, immediately making it complicit in the attitudes expressed onstage, another unsettling layer of thematic inquiry into empathetic lack. And as if this was not disturbing enough, Michell chose to insert embodied innocence in the form of a real infant into the scene. This choice created a uniquely uncomfortable experience that lingered in the audience's sensibility as Raine's fraught tale unfolded. [End Page 390]
The play-text calls for a "baby" to be present for a portion of the first scene, a pointed representation of innocence in the midst of callousness. Raine's thematic intent was immediately heightened by Michell's provocative decision to forgo the conventional swaddled doll. Employing an actual infant (unswaddled and thus capable of movement as well as sound) so young that it seemed barely able to support its own head injected palpable vulnerability into the performance. Very shortly after the play began, Michell's real infant appeared, prompting "Ahs" and quiet gasps. As the scene unfolded, the clearly live infant was passed around from character to character. Because the parents of the infant, Kitty and Edward, have just moved into their home, there were scant places to sit, the bare stage of Hildegard Bechtler's stark set design largely cluttered with boxes. The discernable realness of the infant was on constant display as it was casually handed around, at times with barely noticeable attention to its well-being. For the audience, this proved a visceral distraction, inviting questions: Will they drop it? Is its head properly supported? Thus the appreciable liveness of the infant took on a visual and audible narrative all its own in counterpoint to the adult characters' embodied callousness.
The members of Michell's stellar cast in this scene—Claudie Blakley, Stephen Campbell Moore, Sian Clifford, and Adam James—chillingly captured the disarming, almost charming shallowness of Raine's characters. While the audience watched the fragile infant being passed throughout the space, words such as "vagina," "rape," "cock," and "balls" filled the air, as the characters amused themselves and one another by joking about rape, pedophilia, and the sexuality of young girls. Under Michell's carefully coordinated and rehearsed direction, the performers were so seemingly focused upon one another that it appeared as if the infant and its well-being were an afterthought, and indeed as the production unfolded this proved to be precisely Michell's point. In a few instances, the held infant was downstage in close proximity to the audience, further increasing the potential for audience anxiety about its safety. The infant's presence thus shattered the fourth wall and any conceit on the part of the audience that it could maintain a moral distance from the toxic content of the scene. Michell's bold and calculated insertion of embodied innocence required our active watching on the infant's behalf.
When the infant was finally carried off the stage and that particular layer of potential tension for the audience abated, the provocative content of Raine's play commanded full attention. Yet Michell's directorial choice of a real infant in the beginning haunted later scenes involving references to pregnancy and children. It was revealed that the infant's parents had again conceived a child; however, this time Kitty had an abortion without Edward's consent. The audience's response to this plot twist was complicated by the relationship it previously experienced with Kitty and Edward's child. Unswaddled, murmuring, and moving, the audience was manipulated by its very realness to feel protective of it...