Chris Eldon Lee reviews “Asking For It”, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 15th February
‘Asking For It’ has now arrived in the UK, direct from Ireland, where the story – in print and on stage – has been showered with praise and awards. And now I know why. If you like your theatre to be powerful, provocative and punishing, this is definitely for you.
Louise O’Neill’s campaigning book has become a beacon of light for rape victims around the world. O’Neill has put into well-researched words the deep, private feelings of thousands upon thousands of sexually abused women. Bravely, she handed her treasured text to the Irish-born, New York playwright Meadhbh McHugh who, with director Annabelle Comyn, has faithfully taken the crusade one step further by presenting it to a theatre audience, who, last night, sighed and shivered in unison as the dilemmas of a classic rape case were dissected before them.
Lauren Coe (pictured above) originated the central role of teenager Emma O’Donovan in Cork in 2018 and her performance has faultless stature. She and her school pals – her “ladies in waiting” – chat airily about their insecurities whilst the boys in class engage in ugly horseplay around them. The lads go on to win a football final and the after-party is wildly abandon. This is stunning, multi-media theatre with sensual synchronicity on stage and kaleidoscopic images projected onto the glass fibre school walls.
Emma goes with a boy back to his house and – wanting to experience the buzz of infinity for a moment – takes a ‘tab’. Inevitably they have sex. The question of whether she “asked for it” or not is carefully clouded but Emma, in voice over, describes her initial reluctance and then ultimate compliance. In her altered state, she seemingly decides not to resist this one boy. But then his mates turn up.
Next morning Emma is found blooded on her parents’ doorstep and the depravity of the night before is all over Facebook in naked technicolour. Emma can never be the same again. “Now I belong to everyone”, she says.
The way the second half of the play is presented took me completely by surprise. Far from watching a court room drama, the set closes in on the O’Donovan’s kitchen and, one year later, we learn the outcome purely by observing the family shame. The story is now out. The press can’t mention her name of course, but Emma’s education is ruined, her mother has become unstable and her father is losing status because of the unspoken scandal. Even the local priest makes guarded reference to the sin at Mass.
In one of the several heart-breaking performances in the play, Liam Heslin, as Emma’s older, protective brother Bryan, is the only one still crusading for truth and reason. The conclusion is painfully unsettling…and, tragically, familiar for many women who go through such an ordeal.
It’s a searing play that is utterly compelling and yet so difficult to watch. I was rigid by the end. Theatrically, it is brilliantly constructed, brutally true to life and commensurately performed. What is so disturbing is how it faithfully reflects the life-long, ugly mess that can be caused by one thoughtless, uncontrolled act. And then the agony of the destruction of ‘character’ by the immoral exploitation of social media. In that respect it could be a play about reckless driving, terrorism or knife crime. But because it is actually about sex, something that should normally be a loving experience, the wounding is so much deeper.
Not surprisingly, “Asking For It” has been optioned for a film and is thus destined for the masses. But, seeing it in the immediate intimacy of live theatre will always be the most telling way of experiencing it. Take your chance, close at hand, whilst you can.