The whispers have been getting louder lately, gathering strength. Whispers wondering, given the high number of productions responding to #metoo over the past year, if we’re not perhaps experiencing overkill. If several works have been impressive and memorable in raising awareness around the issue of consent, some, many would argue, have been immediately forgettable, theatrically at least. Either way, do we need another? Whichever side of the argument you come down on one thing’s for sure, "Asking For It” from the 2015 novel by Louise O'Neill, adapted by Meadhbh McHugh in collaboration with Annabelle Comyn, is an important production which packs a punch. Indeed, if you decide to see only one more production addressing the question of consent, make it "Asking For It.” Brave and ambitious, "Asking For It” unflinchingly interrogates sex without proper consent, the culture that gives rise to it, and the life destroying aftermath on those impacted by it. A reminder that there are things which still need to be said, and voices that need to be heard, as recent events in Cork, where “Asking For It” first premiered, make painfully clear.
Being essentially two disjointed, yet interconnected plays loosely stitched together, the first takes place in the classic, cliched, high school set-up seen in every teen drama from Mean Girls to Riverdale. One where smarter, sexually awakening young girls hang out with brain dead jocks ruled by their cocks, with the action taking place one fateful night at a party following a ball game. Played out over a couple of days in the highly examined life of eighteen year old Cork girl, Emma, a sublime Lauren Coe, and her friends Ali, Maggie, and Zoe, a hugely impressive ensemble of Síle Maguire, Amy McElhatton and Venetia Bowe respectively, everything is about where the boys are and what the girls need to do to get there. The boys-will-be-boys in question being Frank Blake, Seán Doyle, Kwaku Fortune, Darragh Shannon, and Charlie Maher, each turning in strong performances. In this male-centred high school the cliches run riot: boys are driven by their sexual appetites, dumb boys don't like smart girls, make yourself pretty if you want to be noticed, and if something sexually inappropriate happens forget it and move on.
If "Asking For It” often deals in cliches, it never settles for being simplistic. Trading in pop cultural imaginings of the highly sexualised, American high school, replete with a mandatory dance routine, might reinforce every teenage trope, yet it also creates a recognisable context for teenagers to connect with, beautifully rendered, and interrogated, under Comyn’s direction. One that dovetails neatly into questioning the toxic sorority and frat culture on many college campuses, with their proliferation of pornographic imagery on porn sites and social media. Something Emma, at eighteen, as the popular girl is prey to. But Emma's already in training to be a trophy wife, having the perfect role model in a sublime Ali White, turning in a stunning performance as the self deluded, wine soaked soccer Mom. Making muffins, dressing to impress the man in her life, loving her normal family, White’s conditioned Mom embodies all the unconscious values that make Emma who she is. Someone learning to be okay with being objectified, eager to please the men around her, while being desperately in need of male validation. Which comes at a crippling cost, as is powerfully conveyed.
Yet "Asking For It” is not without its issues. It’s three hours running time might not feel like a strain, but director Annabelle Comyn’s ponderously plodding pace unnecessarily takes its time, with McHugh’s didactic adaptation lagging in places for trying to address all points of view for all people. Scenes are often slow, feeling sapped of energy as a result, with vocal projection being a recurring problem throughout. Yet key scenes, when they ignite, can hit you with the force of a baseball bat.
When it comes to production values, “Asking For It” sets its bar impressively high. Paul O’Mahony’s adaptable set, and Sinead McKenna's evocative lighting, along with Philip Stewart powerful sound design and Jack Phelan’s disturbing video designs, all conspire to craft a striking post millennial, teenage aesthetic that speaks directly to a social media savvy youth culture. Throughout, Stewart’s suggestive sound scape captures everything from rain, pulsing music beats, introspective podcasts for one, to muffled voices heard through a tinnitus-like ringing in the ears. Meanwhile Phelan’s mesmerising video design superbly conveys the pervasive presence and perverse expectations of pornography. Expectations which allow Emma be reduced from a person to a sexual plaything.
In what might be considered a second play as much as a second part, the shift from high school confidential to kitchen sink, family drama is superbly conveyed by O’Mahony’s clever and cramped set design. Here Emma, along with Mom and Dad, an understated yet powerful Frank McCusker, and her brother Bryan, a compelling Paul Mescal, find themselves ostracised from their community a year on following Emma’s allegation of rape. Her life now a permanent walk of shame as they await the trial of the boys in question, the distraught Emma, in therapy, unable to sleep without medication, and refusing to leave the house, finds her integrity being constantly undermined by the local priest, the national media, and social media, all holding the victim partially responsible. Indeed, it soon becomes unclear whether the allegation of rape or the actual incident itself is the greater offence. With clients leaving her father’s bank in droves and her mother dreading the intimidating anonymous phone calls, the victim narrative soon becomes co-opted by Emma’s family, reducing Emma to a walk-on part in her own story. When the end comes, it superbly highlights the culture clash between post and pre millennial values, holding some up for deserved condemnation, others for closer scrutiny. Meanwhile the search for a new normal for dealing with the issue of consent goes on.
Unafraid to wade through the murkier depths of diminished teenage consent, “Asking For It” exposes many of the accepted cultural and social practices which place women at risk. The recent court case in Cork where a thong worn by a 17-year-old woman was deemed a mitigating factor in an alleged rape highlights, only too painfully, why these practices urgently need to be addressed. Timely, thought provoking, with top class production and terrific performances, “Asking For It” delivers a powerful provocation for the times.
“Asking For It” from the novel by Louise O'Neill, adapted by Meadhbh McHugh in collaboration with Annabelle Comyn, produced by Landmark Productions and The Everyman in association with the Abbey Theatre and Cork Midsummer Festival, runs at The Abbey Theatre until November 24.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre