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Theatre offers the space we need to talk about #MeToo and consent

As Theatre503 stages its festival responding to sexual harassment revelations, writer Kate Wyver reflects on the pieces on show and why theatre is the platform to debate and discuss the issues

Theatre 503

This week, Theatre503 presented The Words Are Coming Now, a rapidly put together platform to discuss issues of sex and consent. It featured ten short plays from playwrights such as Richard Bean and April de Angelis, as well as several panel-led discussions. Theatre trades in intimacy, so it only seems natural to talk about consent.

It is quickly becoming one of the most vital topics of our time, with the theatre industry beginning to call out unacceptable behaviour that has been hidden for too long. But consent is more complicated than just what graces the headlines, and there is a huge amount of ignorance around consent that impacts everyday relationships and encounters.

Theatre can offer the necessary space to ask difficult questions

When talking about the #MeToo movement online, nuanced debates can seem few and far between. It's tricky to unpick a complicated topic in 280 characters, and immediate reactions can quickly spiral into a shouting match with capitalised words and frequent uses of the phrase "well, actually". The festival showcased Deidan Williams' playlet #Shhh_timetolisten, which pieced together multiple views of #MeToo, from gentle encouragements to troll-like shutdowns. It demonstrated that theatre can be a far more open space to delve into this topic than social media platforms.

In the post-show discussion, one audience member noted that this pressure to have a strong opinion one way or the other on #MeToo has prevented her from speaking up. She felt that nuance and confusion had no place in the debate.

Art allows more than one viewpoint

This is true for many. Lots of people have questions they're too afraid to ask concerning consent, and some others are too stubborn to listen for the answers. Theatre can offer the necessary space to ask these difficult questions, to listen and to view a scenario from multiple perspectives. Through empathising with a character, someone might gain a deeper understanding of a concept they may otherwise be defensive about, were they to scroll past it on Twitter.

Art allows more than one viewpoint. It allows a character to backtrack and question and gnaw away at a point. Patrick Russell's Sorry Not Sorry at Theatre503 did this as it unpicked sex scandals in Westminster, as did Speaking Freely by Chris Bush, a brilliant snippet of confused conversation on a panel discussion about sexual assault. This festival allowed people to say: it's complicated, I don't understand, please let's talk about this.

British theatre has a responsibility to continue talking about consent

Individually, the plays ask questions around power play, ownership and entitlement. Richard Bean's Hotel du Vin used the often bandied idea of a signed document of written consent, while April de Angelis' piece Words showed a lifetime of conversations condensed, demonstrating how often women are put in uncomfortable situations over which they have little power.

Collectively, though dealing with a heavy topic, the plays and discussion were hopeful. The Words Are Coming Now: even the title is optimistic. It presented the idea that people are starting to listen more intently, to discuss, debate, to widen their vocabulary around consent. One audience member commented that they wished the blokes in the pub downstairs could have come to watch the shows and join in the discussion. It felt open and welcoming, eager to listen to everyone's views.

Globally, one in three women in the world are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Consent matters. We can't keep quiet about it for any longer and British theatre has a responsibility to continue talking about this, both onstage and off, until the statistics begin to change. Bravo to Theatre503 for being one of the theatres to lead the way.