THE much-anticipated stage adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s novel, ‘Asking For It’, which had its world premiere at the Everyman last Friday night, deserves the hype it has attracted. Making this harrowing tale of a gang rape and its repercussions move from page to stage, Maedhbh McHugh has for the most part, stayed true to the novel.
The play, staged by Landmark Productions and the Everyman, in association with the Abbey Theatre and the Cork Midsummer Festival, should be required viewing for every teenager, male and female, because of the questions it implicitly asks about sexual consent, rape culture and victim-shaming.
O’Neill’s novel, published in 2015, is of the ‘young adult’ genre. But that’s not to say that the play is only suitable for late adolescents. Far from it. The story of young, beautiful and vain Emma, from a small fictional town in West Cork, is very much in keeping with the zeitgeist. It’s a drama for our times with movements such as #MeToo and the issues arising from the Belfast rape trial earlier this year (in which all the accused were acquitted.)
The play, directed with tremendous focus by Annabelle Comyn, is three hours long. But don’t let that put anyone off because it is utterly compelling. Intense, albeit with some welcome moments of levity, mainly from the mother of the rape victim, this play commands the audience’s unwavering attention. It is hardly ever boring. Yes, there are the inevitable braying young men whose sense of humour is crude and predictable. And there are perhaps too many characters in this play, 12 in all, with one of the characters seemingly playing the alter ego of Emma on a couple of occasions.
Emma, played by Lauren Coe, is deeply superficial, rating herself high in the looks stakes which gives her a superiority complex over her gal pals. At a party, she gets drunk and ends up in bed with Paul. What starts as a consensual encounter quickly turns nasty. Events spiral out of control with two more guys joining the pair in the bedroom of the host’s parents.
There is nothing sexually gratuitous in this play. Instead of showing simulated sex acts, a voice over from Emma suffices. She becomes uncertain and then scared before passing out. What follows is the nightmare of Emma having been caught on mobile phone cameras with her ‘pink flesh and splayed legs’ all over social media. She is the talk of the town and the target of misogyny. Even her mother displays internalised misogyny.
Not all the males in this play are baddies. There is the sensitive Conor who fancies — and respects — Emma, even after her public shaming. There is her brother Bryan, well played by Paul Mescal, who wants Emma to go all the way to court. Can this damaged young woman take on three middle-class football heroes?
‘Asking For It’ continues until June 23.
By Colette Sheridan