Directed by Johann Walraven
542 King Street, Newtown
Season: 14 March – 15 April
Young or old, human beings seem to have a persisting obsession with sex. I wonder if the fascination is heightened because, while sex is seemingly simple, many aspects of it are rather difficult to understand. A prime example: the notion of ‘consent’. What is consent? Who can actually give consent? How can you be sure that the sex is consensual? Socio-cultural understandings of ‘consent’ have moved away from the attitude of ‘they’re married, so consent to sex is all in the bargain’, and instead towards a ‘Yes means Yes, No means No’ approach. But as much as we’d like such a simple and direct guideline to follow, Evan Placey’s play challenges the simplicity of the concept of consent, without flinching. Posing more questions than answers, Johann Walraven’s production opens up a Pandora’s Box that strongly engages its audience from start to finish.
Diane is a pastoral care teacher at a high school, and takes a shine to Freddie, one of the ‘at-risk’ kids she’s meant to look out for. 7 years later Freddie is accusing her of grooming and raping him. In this play we navigate classroom discussions, familial conversations and some of the varying perspectives on what happened one night 7 years ago. From the get-go, a convivial and vivacious ensemble cast of students enter the stage, framed by vast walls of crude graffiti, setting the tone and heisting the audience’s attention. Through haphazard activity and interjections, some really difficult issues and initial questions surrounding ‘consent’ are raised – in a natural way, in the true voices of students. While some of these student characters err on caricature, the actors manage to develop believable and distinctive characterisations that comprise an authentic and entertaining classroom dynamic.
If you’re watching this play with the aim of placing blame and identifying individuals’ wrongdoing, I think you’ll have some trouble. Walraven’s direction ensures multifaceted complexity in every issue breached – it appears there is never a clear-cut answer, and often not a clear-cut victim and perpetrator. Lauren Richardson plays Diane with the distinctive air of teacher authority, ultimately revealing an aching rawness as she grapples with feelings that she is definitely not allowed to have. Paul Whiddon plays Freddie with a sort of charismatic neediness and impressively manages to vacillate between conveying immaturity and apparent maturity that attracts Diane. Richardson and Whiddon’s depiction of Diane and Freddie’s relationship warms up over the course of the play, with listening and genuine reactions improving increasingly as the story progressed. Particularly in act 2, Richardson and Whiddon share some immensely compelling scenes and watching the magnetic pushes and pulls in their relationship is nothing short of fascinating. Eliza Nicholls gives an exuberant performance as Georgia, another ‘at-risk’ student who regularly seeks assistance and confides in the new pastoral care teacher. While her stage time is short, Nicholls forges a lasting impression.
This is a production that makes a serious impact. It doesn’t shy away from anything - including revealing the likeable features and characteristics of people who do acts that are generally perceived as abhorrent. This doesn’t occur in a manner that limits the gravity of issues of consent, but rather emphasises a dire social need for honest discourse. There is a sort of resignation that shrouds socially accepted attitudes towards sex and understandings of consent that impacts our ability to shape these attitudes in a healthy way. Hours after the play’s close, my mind is still buzzing. One thing is clear – we can’t claim to have it all figured out.