Monday 17 December 2018

Asking for It: Rape culture takes centre stage

Asking for It. Photo: Patrick Redmond
Asking for It. Photo: Patrick Redmond

Maggie Armstrong

In one terribly sad scene in Asking for It, the town beauty queen tells her hysterical friend not to report her sexual assault to the police. The girls are drunk at a house party the day the local heroes have won the football.

"You told me you didn't say no," says Emma (Lauren Coe).

"I didn't say yes," replies Zoe (Venetia Bowe).

The irony is that moments later, Emma will undergo an appalling series of events herself. Emma doesn't say no to the footballers who violently assault her, but she doesn't say yes, either. The tragedy of Asking for It begins with that willful misunderstanding by a bunch of jocks. Later, one of Emma's friends will ask her, "Was it rape rape?", as if there are two kinds.

It should not be too plot-spoiling to say that Louise O'Neill's 2015 novel is about rape. The bestseller did much to create a redefinition of the word. A documentary followed the book, a TV adaptation is on the way and now the most hyped Irish world premiere of 2018 - a co-production from Landmark, the Everyman, the Cork Midsummer Festival and the Abbey - has opened in the Everyman, in Cork, where the book is set.

An adaptation is usually judged on its faithfulness to the book. Under Annabelle Comyn's direction, with a script by Meadhbh McHugh that is sharp and also very funny, Asking for It not only stays faithful to the novel, it goes further, raising it up to heaven and down to hell, too. It is worth the hype.

Set in the fictional 'Ballinatoom', Emma is a flawed young woman: vain, bright, witty, competitive with her friends - a bracing ensemble that capture what it is to be a teenage girl. Enter their male counterparts, and something feels uneasy, violent, with one locker-room joke too many threatening the peace. These characters are each brilliantly explored by the actors. Their perfectly wrought Cork accents somehow enhance the innocence of a "tiny world".

Coe is quietly masterful as Emma, while Ali White is fascinating as her delusional 'Mam' in a crucial role as the play moves its focus to Emma's collapsing family life. Emma's cold bank manager father (Frank McCusker) struggles to cope and Emma's brother Bryan (Paul Mescal) brings some humanity to the almost relentlessly cruel community that surrounds her.

Asking for It is an unusually structured novel in that very little happens after the main events. In the second half, we hang around inside Emma's head, which at times made for a dragging read. In lesser hands, the second half of the play might have dipped in pace. But this hi-tech and highly beautiful production mines the book's emotional depths for every last second of drama.

Emma's world collapses and fragments along with Paul O'Mahony's cool sci-fi set, made up of clear panels that shift and slide to become the street, the football stands, the house party and finally the claustrophobic grey of Emma's house, as "the world gets smaller and smaller, wrapping itself around me". She even loses her voice, which reaches us from recorded audio that fills the theatre.

The panels also form the canvas for Jack Phelan's grueling video work, from dream-like footage of the characters to underwater bubbles to streaks of rain. Sinéad McKenna's lighting and Philip Stewart's sound design complete this totally absorbing theatrical experience.

Asking for It comes to the Abbey, Dublin from November 9-24

Read more: Asking for It at The Everyman, Cork: The brutal price of sexual freedom

Old-fashioned drama taps into the now

Chris McCormack

The Numbered hardly adds up to a well-known play. First seen in 1953, this drama by Bulgarian playwright Elias Canetti depicts an oppressive future where people know when they will die. Its revival is owed to Corcadorca, a company long-drawn to the corrosive worlds of Enda Walsh but who now seem to be seeking dystopias larger in scope. Judging by the resurgence of Margaret Atwood and George Orwell on the bestseller lists, they're not the only ones.

Director Pat Kiernan's stylish production, staged in Cork's Fitzgerald's Park, finds a village of on-edge residents. An irascible boy (Kevin Creedon) skips school because he's destined to die before his time. A man (cunning and sly Tadhg Murphy) entertains neighbours with overblown scenes of male conquest and heartbreak. Goals and pursuits seem strangely novel when people already know their fate, but a conflicted woman (Lucianne McEvoy) suspects they're all living a lie.

It's a thrilling trip in Aedín Cosgrove's design, whose futuristic village and manipulation of the local architecture is made stark under her knockout lighting, co-designed with Paul Keoghan.

Mel Mercier's excellent music, losing none of its clarity in the open-air, supplies the pace of a thriller.

Despite these edgy touches, Canetti's play still feels dated in its stylistic suspicion of authority, episodic structure and absurdism. ("The boredom!" one character cries. Unsurprisingly, the play premiered the same year as Waiting for Godot).

It's easy, however, to see the show's connections to the politics of today - the final confrontation between McEvoy's whistle-blower and the play's tyrant, The Keeper (a screwy Frankie McCafferty), could represent a struggle against fake news.

But Canetti's play can't lean into those resonances, as its bleak finale sees people exchange one form of oppression for another.

That leaves an old-fashioned dystopian drama longing for freedom.

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