Theatre can undoubtedly be a cathartic experience for both the performers and the audience. Yet there's a fine line between storytelling and personal therapy, a balance that is not quite achieved in this psychologically draining "dramatic thriller" from CRAFT Theatre Company.
As you might guess from the title, A Question of Consent explores abuse and manipulation - physical, mental and sexual. The narrative follows a girl who splits with her boyfriend before heading to university. There she moves in with an older man who, almost immediately, begins abusing her. What follows is a case of Stockholm Syndrome: a perverse relationship forming where the abuser becomes the abused.
What's most striking about this production is the practice of director Rocky Rodriguez, Jr, in which he trains the actors through physical exhaustion and identity deconstruction techniques. The purpose is to provide authentic and highly emotive performances with an improvisatory feel. This may be true, but you can't help but worry for the sanity of the cast, especially as they've already been rehearsing and devising the piece for six months. Their inner-strength and dedication is admirable.
You can imagine, therefore, how harrowing A Question of Consent is. This is a brutal and unflinching piece of theatre, utterly relentless in its depiction of rape. Just as the actors are stuck in a loop of manipulation, there is no escape for the audience. There is no set, no lighting changes and only basic monochromatic costumes, altogether relying on the power of the human mind for impact. Moreover, the reactions of the audience - sat in traverse - are visible to all, making for uncomfortable viewing.
One criticism is that the relationships between the characters don't feel believable, the audience questioning why somebody would allow themselves to get involved in such a situation. However, most harrowing of all, is that the narrative is based on the real story of a woman close to the company, confusingly blurring the lines between theatre and reality (Rodriguez insisting the actors stay in first person, even during the following Q&A). It's difficult, therefore, to criticise the decision-making behind the plot without questioning somebody's personal decisions.
This draws into question the purpose of the piece. Clearly A Question of Consent is a form of personal therapy, but for the audience whether this is thought-provoking theatre or simply relying on shock value is up for debate.
Watch: A Question of Consent previews throughout January at The Rag Factory, London.
Photos from Paul Cockroft.