Theatre Review: Asking For It – The Abbey Theatre Until 24 November

Frances Winston reviews this very traumatic and very timely play, Asking For It 

The Abbey Theatre, 26/27 Abbey Street Lower, Dublin 1

9 – 24 November on the Abbey Stage, Age Guidance: 16+

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, overall 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 – I even overheard one woman saying that if that had happened to her she would have punched them till they died! 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.

Times: Mon – Sat 7.30pm, Sat & Wed Matinees 2pm

Tickets: €13 – €45 / Conc. €13 – €30

Running Time: 2 hours 55 minutes including a 20 minute interval

Sign language interpreted performance: Thursday 22 November, 7:30pm

Audio-described and captioned performance: Saturday 24 November, 2:00pm

Credits:

  • 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

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