Photo by Bob Seary

Review by Nathan Lentern

Consensual Directed by Johann Walraven,

Previews Tue 14 & Wed 15 Mar, 7:30pm
Thu – Sat 7:30pm, Sun 5pm
Final performance, Sat 15 Apr 5pm
Set and Costume Designer Renee Halse
Lighting Designer Liam O’Keefe
Sound Designer Johann Walraven
Original music by  Nicky D’Silva
Production Manager Sahn Millington
Stage Manager Veda Best
ASM Tom Aldous

Cast:

Callum Alexander, Michael Brindley, Claire Crighton,
Rhys Johnson, Eloise Martin-Jones, Eliza Nicholls,
Eamon O’Flynn, Celeste Reardon, Lauren Richardson,
Natasha Rose, Anton Smilek, Nicole Toum,
Benjamin Vickers, Paul Whiddon, Emma Wright

Seven years ago the newly minted teachers assistant Diane (Lauren Richardson) commits the teacher’s cardinal sin when she has a brief sexual relationship with a student. Today she is a successful teacher in her own right, married to a tax accountant and has a young daughter. Everything about her from her slightly clipped consonants to her dress and cardigan radiates a benign middle class cosmopolitanism. Alas none of us can truly escape our pasts and especially when her victim, Freddie, (Paul Whiddon) asks to meet up. Ostensibly, Freddie is after closure but as the encounter draws to a close he admits that he has made a statement with the police and Diane’s tranquil life is no longer.

A power struggle of sorts ensues, in which Diane tries to manoeuvre Freddie into withdrawing his statement, Freddie tries to outmanoeuvre Diane: families and work are dragged into the fray and more than a few innocent albeit unpleasant bystanders are trampled on. Along the way, another young teacher’s assistant, (Celeste Reardon) a protégé of Diane, struggles with the line between friend and teacher. Too eager to be liked by students, she struggles to establish her authority over her students.

This production is broken into one unusually lengthy bracket of ninety minutes, then one unusually brief one of thirty minutes but the approach is justified and effective. The first bracket is played out in the current day. We see Diane attempting to keep control of her life in spite of the net steadily closing around her. The second bracket takes us back to the fateful night when Freddie fled one of his father’s alcoholic rages and turned up on Diane’s doorstep.

The thinking behind this structure is solid, ninety minutes of he-said-she-said forces us to make a judgment about who did what before the final act reveals whether we’re right. The first ninety minutes of the play are sublime. English-Canadian playwright Evan Placey cleverly uses the classroom setting as a way to tease out the play’s themes of consent and capacity to give consent. A sexual education class discussion with contributions from troublemakers, tedious do-gooders, well-meaning fools and the odd voice of reason moves seamlessly from dramatic to comedic as Diane struggles to maintain control.  As the focus of the discussion turns to age of consent Diane’s composure deteriorates.

The students are a particular highlight. Their dialogue is natural and authentic, it includes the subtleties and nuances you would get in a gathering of eight adolescents. Admittedly one or two are drawn a little crudely and perhaps director Johann Walraven could have gotten them to tone it down slightly, but most come across as so genuine it’s a little unnerving. Nicole Toum stands out as a particular highlight, playing a more intelligent and understated character, her portrayal of Grace was a delight.

The students serve a dual purpose, while not featured in a scene they form a ring around the featured cast and watch from the dimmed light, their faces a wall of disdainful judgment. With well-deployed lighting and a grinding dubstep track played over scene changes the effect of the ring of students is truly chilling.

Meanwhile, at home, Diane’s husband Pete begins to hone in on the truth, initially realising he is not being told the full truth and progressively coming to suspect her of being entirely guilty. Played by Benjamin Vickers, the older, well dressed Pete represents a beige middle class stability. He offers Diane reliability but little stimulation; he is the antithesis of the troubled, exciting but forbidden Freddie.

We also follow young Freddie around as he struggles with what happened to him or, depending on your perspective, what he has done. Through Freddie’s exchanges with his older brother and with Diane’s husband we get a portrait of a complicated, troubled young figure. He isn’t especially likeable but he is sympathetic.

From pub, to classroom, to offices, to homes, the first two acts are magnificent, charged with pathos and angst, with complex, engaging, well-crafted characters they challenge our preconceived notions about consent and morality in a sensitive, witty and original way. Everything about it from the dubstep upwards feels fresh and exciting.

And then the final act starts. For a play that avoids the clichés so well for so long the final act is a huge let down. A clunky euphemism about hurricanes is sure to induce eye rolling if not audible groans. Indeed the suspension of disbelief was tested when that awkward bit of flirting didn’t extinguish every last cinder of romantic tension then and there. Then there was a pointless little motif about Queen and Freddie Mercury that felt suspiciously like the playwright – in a very Nick Hornbyesque fashion – merely wanted to flaunt his own musical tastes. And finally there was the sex scene itself. Richardson and Whitten tried admirably to keep the atmosphere tense but it was just an awkward mess.

It was one of those moments where the detail would have been best left to the imagination. A character leading the other off stage towards a bedroom would have been more powerful. Sex on stage is tough, on screen the scenes can be reshot, the sound effects redubbed, the camera angles chosen selectively to create the desired atmosphere but on stage this is infinitely more difficult. I hasten to add there is a purpose to enacting the sex scene so vividly as it is used to shape our views on the nature of consent and control but the payoff isn’t worth the expense. Not even close.

And it’s a pity because Consensual is a powerful, sophisticated and enthralling work of art. It does what great art should, it enthrals us, it makes us think and it makes us second guess – even if only for a moment – truths we held to be self-evident. And it deserves a better final scene than the one it has.