Asking For It – Abbey Theatre – Review by Fran Winston
Landmark Productions and The Everyman in association with the Abbey Theatre and Cork Midsummer Festival – Asking for It
9 – 24 November 2018
Running Time: 2 hours 55 minutes including a 20 minute interval
It’s hard to believe that Louise O’Neill’s book of the same name, which is the source material for this play, came out before the Belfast Rape Trial and the #MeToo movement as it seems so relevant to the current climate. The evening I saw it was just days after a rape victim’s thong was displayed in court causing outrage and the themes of victim shaming and blaming prevailing throughout this seemed more apt than they might have even a few weeks earlier.
If you haven’t read the book and aren’t familiar with the story the clue is in the title. A young girl named Emma finds herself the victim of a gang rape while inebriated at a party. Dumped on her doorstep, her parents are horrified but when she tries to take action society starts questioning just how much of a victim she really is and whether or not she was a willing participant.
The book was a resounding success so this comes to the stage with a fully formed fanbase. In terms of the work itself the staging is incredibly clever. What looks like a wall of sparse screens adorning the background actually move around and open out to become everything from a school to a party house to a homely kitchen while also displaying footage and images relevant to the story. Movement director Sue Mythen does a great job of ensuring the actors use the space to its fullest.
The first half of the play leads up to the event itself and the second act deals with the aftermath and the effect on Emma’s family. The event itself is depicted in a very brutal and honest fashion. You don’t see the actual act but the build-up and implication are enough to leave you sitting there in horror. As the central thread in the story it is treated extremely well.
Despite this, I would say that at times this is somewhat overwritten as they try to incorporate all the details from the book. The boys are almost caricatures of Jocks at times and we really don’t need it reinforced so acutely – we get it. Equally in the second act her father and brother shout, a lot. Again, we get their frustration and don’t need to keep having it reinforced every couple of minutes. Indeed to properly analyse this critically I would say there are a good 10-15 minutes that could be shaved off the running time without affecting the story.
However, this isn’t the kind of play you dissect about its script. This is more about the underlying message and the experience of the show. The protagonist Emma is played by Lauren Coe. She is not supposed to be a likeable character and Coe manages to convey this while also giving her a vulnerability that is somewhat endearing. You find yourself torn because she’s not a nice person but equally she was not to blame for what happened to her despite her failings.
The Abbey Theatre are very conscious of the sensitive issue of this subject and give everyone a verbal notification on the way in and tell them that it’s OK to leave if it gets too much. During the interval they also opened up the toilets in their sister theatre The Peacock and assured women that no men would be let in there. The programmes contain numbers to call if you have been affected by the issues in the play. And indeed it is very affecting.
I have never seen such a seismic shift in the mood of an audience at a show. When I entered the Abbey, groups of women and a few men were all chatting animatedly in the bar. There were conversations about everything from the dress someone had seen for a wedding to an amazing mozzarella a woman had bought in a gourmet shop. During the interval there was almost a feeling of shell shock and several people were wiping away tears and discussing their own experiences. By the end of the show there was a sense of prevailing anger. Suffice to say that the show deeply resonated with the audience and absolutely moved many of them.
What I felt were a few tiny flaws in the narrative didn’t detract from the overall spectacle. I overheard people saying this should be on the school curriculum and it does indeed raise the important issue of what exactly is consent. The Abbey are right to give people a warning – this is somewhat traumatic at times. But it will probably go down as one of the most important pieces of social narrative ever performed on the Abbey Stage.
Conor: Frank Blake
Zoe: Venetia Bowe
Emma: Lauren Coe
Seán: Seán Doyle
Eli: Kwaku Fortune
Ali: Síle Maguire
Paul: Charlie Maher
Dad: Frank McCusker
Bryan: Paul Mescal
Maggie: Amy McElhatton
Dylan: Darragh Shannon
Mam: Ali White
Written by: Louise O’Neill
Adapted by: Meadhbh McHugh in collaboration with Annabelle Comyn
Directed by: Annabelle Comyn
Set Design: Paul O’Mahony
Costume Design: Niamh Lunny
Lighting Design: Sinéad McKenna
Sound Design: Philip Stewart
Video Design: Jack Phelan
Movement Director: Sue Mythen
Production Manager: Eamonn Fox
Stage Manager: Clare Howe
Assistant Stage Manager: Emma Coen
Production Manager (Abbey Theatre): Andy Keogh
Stage Manager (Abbey Theatre): Leo McKenna
Stage Manager (Abbey Theatre): Anne Kyle