Law in action

14 April 2017

11:00 PM

14 April 2017

11:00 PM

It’s like Raging Bull. The great Scorsese movie asks if a professional boxer can exclude violence from his family life. Nina Raine’s new play Consent puts the same question to criminal barristers. We meet four lawyers engaged in cases of varying unpleasantness who like to share a drink after a long day in court. They gossip about the more horrific behaviour of their clients with frivolous and mocking detachment. But when their personal relationships start to falter under the strains of infidelity, they’re unable to relinquish their professional expertise, and their homes become legalistic battlefields. This sounds like a small discovery but Raine turns it into a grand canvas. At her best she can create scenes that feel like eavesdropped conversation rather than hand-crafted dialogue. She writes male characters better than most male dramatists and she captures precisely the sinuous and competitive glibness of the masculine yuppie at play. Nor does she care if her characters fail the sympathy test. She presents people as they are — lumpy, vain, malicious, self-deluding — and she lets the actors add as much polish as they can find.

This is an unashamedly London play full of jokes about the Tube and ‘renting in Zone Four’ and it doesn’t flinch from one of London’s uglier truths. Residents of the capital regard all outsiders as imperfect human beings and therefore inherently comic. (Even provincial arrivistes like me assent to this prejudice.) In one extraordinary scene, two barristers offer tuition to an actress seeking a role as a TV lawyer. By playfully cross-examining each other they teach her the tricks and histrionic effects used by advocates to sway judges, to discredit witnesses, and to smuggle prejudices into the minds of juries. To cheat, that is, albeit within the rules. But the tutorial spirals out of control when the lawyers realise that each has a romantic interest in the actress, and their bantering exhibition-piece turns into a savage rutting session between two stags over a broody female.

Dramatic writing rarely combines so many virtues at once. It’s original, astute, unnerving, sexy, funny, brutal, unpredictable and multilayered. The last play of this calibre that opened at the Dorfman was People, Places and Things. It transferred to New York via the West End. This is a better show, by some margin, and deserves to follow the same flightpath.

For actors, typecasting is a form of death. Hence the eternal romance between movie stars and the West End. On stage, an actor can exhibit elements of his talent unknown to the screen. As a supplementary pleasure, he’s aware that directors and producers cannot ‘skip through’ a theatre piece as they can through a show reel or a bad film. This may explain Damian Lewis’s decision to play Martin, a twitchy oddball, in Edward Albee’s sex-on-the-side drama. Martin and Stevie are a prosperous couple enjoying their third decade of settled maturity. But Martin has met an adorable animal, a goat, with whom he has fallen in love. Sylvia is the name of his cloven-hoofed playmate.

When Stevie learns about her husband’s excursions into livestock, the show develops along two parallel paths. Farce and melodrama. Martin reveals that he’s joined a therapy group where beast-fanciers gather to gossip, reminisce and celebrate their latest triumphs in the farmyard. There he regularly hobnobs with goose-gropers, dog-rutters, pig-botherers and cattle-mounters and he treats them all with the same easy tolerance that he expects Stevie to extend to him. That’s the farcical bit. Stevie reacts with fury, tears, denunciations, threats and vandalism. That’s the melodramatic bit.

None of it truly convinces. Martin’s assertion that his weekends in the goat-pen are as romantically satisfying as a human affair sounds like an act of rhetoric rather than an exploration of character. And Stevie’s response makes her seem soppy, weak and slightly deranged herself. The guy is nuts, right? Completely lost it. And his idea that dating goats might be socially acceptable is a symptom of his mental breakdown. Stevie misreads her husband’s sexual wanderings as a challenge to her attractiveness and a violation of their marriage vows. It’s neither. Their love is not diminished by his bucolic trysts. It’s erased entirely. The marriage is over. A goat? I mean seriously. Instead of yelling at him she should tell the cops, hire a shrink or call the farmer.

Eventually, she pursues one of those options and her choice leads to a climax that is as gory, daft and unbelievable as the build-up. This is a sad, misbegotten thing. Too bizarre to be genuinely tragic, too earnest to be truly comic, too muddled to bear scrutiny. The best joke is that Martin is a renowned designer of skyscrapers who resides in a beautiful antique mansion. So, like the rest of his profession, he’s a modern (i.e. talentless) architect who lives in a home built by a real (i.e. dead) one.

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