As a piece of theatre, Carolyn Lloyd-Davies’ consent drama Penetration left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied – but hear me out, because that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As the play concludes, there’s no feeling of justice being done, no clear villain to rail against (unless you count the awful James, who we’ll get to later) or hero to root for, and not even any sense that lessons might be learnt from the events of the play. There are just a lot of people whose lives are ruined by one split second decision – a decision that we fully understand didn’t come from a place of malice but one of ignorance – and as frustrating as all that is for an audience, the lack of closure, depressingly, feels like quite a realistic portrayal of how such a scenario would actually play out.
Medical student Anna (Georgina Armfield) is reluctantly convinced by her controlling doctor boyfriend James (Steve Chusak) to agree to an open relationship, and hooks up with fellow medic Sean (Calum Wragg-Smith) at a party. But the following morning a boundary gets crossed, and so begins the slow unravelling of multiple lives. The play asks important questions about what constitutes both rape and consent, and explores the impact of failing to understand those concepts for not only the “victim” and “perpetrator” but also for those around them. It also deals with the phenomenon of trial by social media, whereby whatever the outcome from a legal point of view, once an accusation of this kind is made public, it never really goes away.
In terms of educating the audience, the play can’t be faulted; there are clear explanations throughout – thanks largely to the scenes featuring rape crisis counsellor Vivienne (Amantha Edmead) – and it’s made abundantly plain that a “he said she said” case like this doesn’t necessarily mean one of the two must be lying; it’s much, much more complicated than that. And there’s no denying Penetration offers an audience plenty to think and talk about (since seeing it I’ve spent more time discussing this play than anything else I’ve seen in a long time), which can only be a good thing.
Where things are not so clear is in terms of who the play is for and what message it’s trying to send. I can certainly see that for a male audience member, it’s a cautionary tale about what can happen if you don’t get consent from a sexual partner. But the moral of that story seems to be: if you don’t get consent your life might be ruined, rather than the danger that you might irreparably harm someone else. At no point does Sean appear to wonder how Anna’s doing, or what impact his actions might have had on her; even when they discuss it at the time, his apology is more of the “sorry you feel that way” flavour. And while he stops short of accusing Anna of lying, he clearly feels victimised by her decision to report what happened between them.
Women, meanwhile, may well be left with the uncomfortable feeling that if we report an incident like this one, we could inadvertently destroy the life and prospects of a nice guy like Sean. And however realistic that might be, given recent events anything that doesn’t actively encourage women to protect themselves or stand up to violence of any kind doesn’t sit quite right. Ultimately, while the play clearly strives to tell both sides, in the end it feels much more like Sean’s story – perhaps because his one supporter, his mum Felicity (Louise Bangay), is significantly more vocal and articulate in his defence than anyone on Anna’s side. (The person who should be Anna’s main source of support is the aforementioned awful James, who claims to love her but never once asks her how she is or speaks up on her behalf, and manages to make the situation about him to an almost absurd degree.)
These misgivings aside, the play is well written and performed, and even though parts of the script feel slightly too didactic to be completely natural, the story never drags or fails to hold our attention. In the programme it says the play “aims to jolt the audience into exploring parameters of consent” – and on that front, it certainly succeeds. This relevant and hard-hitting piece will provoke some strong opinions, and it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it will certainly get audiences thinking, and talking, and that’s an essential first step in bringing about change.
Penetration is at the Cockpit Theatre until 9th October.