Nina Raine began writing this knotty, viciously funny drama of sexual politics, morality and the law seven years ago, long before #MeToo and #TimesUp became hot-button hashtags. It’s indicative of how perceptive the playwright is that it now feels so utterly, urgently of the moment. Set among a slick, smug, prosperous group of lawyers, it considers the myriad aspects of the legal process that fail the victims of rape, the ways in which jurisdiction over women’s bodies is trusted to a brutal system, and the slipperiness of the concept of truth and consent, with the competing narratives of complainant and defendant set against each other and filtered through the manipulative weasel words of clever barristers. Raine also brilliantly exploits the theatricality of the adversarial courtroom. In a chic, slick production by Roger Michell, which transfers to the West End after a successful run at the National Theatre last year, it’s eviscerating, enraging – and also sharply entertaining.
In an earlier work, 2011’s Tiger Country. Raine penetrated the mechanics of medical profession and considered, with characteristic cool acuity, the effect on doctors, nurses and surgeons of grappling day-to-day with the blood and guts of humanity for a living. She’s in not dissimilar territory here, with her self-satisfied legal eagles hardened to the devastating effect that their success or failure at work can have on the people whose cases they argue. We meet them at the chic London home of smooth defence lawyer Edward (Stephen Campbell Moore) and his wife Kitty (Claudie Blakley), who are celebrating the birth of their baby. The infant in question is played by a real-life child (at the National, it was often Raine’s own new baby), which makes the savagery of the banter at their little party even more wince-inducing. Edward and his faintly sleazy friend Jake (Adam James) swap anecdotes in startling, sweary language. Rachel (Sian Clifford), Jake’s wife, gleefully describes cross-examination as “the best fun.”
Despite all the champagne-swilling bonhomie, there are already cracks in both marriages. Later, we’re introduced to Tim (Lee Ingleby), a diffident, nervy Northern prosecuting counsel currently up against Edward in a rape case. Kitty and Edward have him in mind as a date for Zara (Clare Foster), Kitty’s actor friend. Clare is as adept at presenting and editing herself as any accused or litigant. She’s auditioning for a part in a TV legal drama and rehearsing Medea, and she gushes about Greek drama’s strong women, while always aiming to please – specifically, to please men. But beneath the smiles, she’s made of steel, and her flirtation is all strategy: She wants to have a baby, and her biological clock is ticking.
Gayle (Heather Craney), the woman at the centre of the rape case, is almost an afterthought when it comes to court. “This happened to me, why don’t I get a lawyer?” she asks, traumatised and bewildered, when Tim explains to her that as the victim, she can only be called as a witness to her own violation. It’s problematic that Raine is almost equally cursory in her treatment of Gayle, the play’s only working-class character. She’s underwritten, and her fate is rather summarily dealt with. It’s Stephen and Kitty’s domestic drama that begins to take centre stage, as Kitty catches her husband out in an affair and – somewhat like one of Clare’s “shouty women” in classical tragedy, takes sexual revenge on him. In the messy aftermath of two affairs, she and her estranged husband have sex. She claims he rapes her. He denies it. Is one of them lying – or are they both telling their own version of the truth.
Hildegard Bechtler’s glossy set glides between the arenas of conflict, and the acting is sharp-edged and bristling with lacerating wit. This isn’t always an easy play to watch, but it is important and fascinating – not least in the way in which it refuses to yield any comforting certainties. Grim, glittering and thoroughly compelling.