Having made its debut in 2018 at the Cork Midsummer Festival, Landmark Productions’s and Everyman’s adaption of Louise O’Neill’s 2014 novel Asking for It, returns to the stage of the Gaiety Theatre for a limited run up until the 26th of October.
The play deals with the often-taboo subject of consent and does so in an equal parts brave and tragic manner. One of the most heartbreaking moments of Asking for It arrives at the beginning of Act II, as we listen to a radio blaring in an empty kitchen. A female caller comments that “The Ballinatoom Girl” was “asking for it”, basing her opinion on how young women dress these days, that they are essentially advertising themselves to be raped. Unfortunately, these comments are not simply a piece of fiction, but a sad reflection of how society often treats rape and sexual violence, reminding us all of some truly horrific comments made by well known radio presenters. Joyce once made the remark that the penultimate symbol of Irish art was that of the cracked looking glass. Asking for It, however, begs the following question: Is it society, rather than the mirror, which is broken?
Credit must first be given to Paul O’Mahoney, who was responsible for the show’s deceptively simple set design. Consisting of several glass boxes which contract and expand as the action moves from school, to house party, to kitchen. In all its various forms, the set never quite shakes the first impression it leaves upon the audience; the cold sterility of prison walls. However, the talented cast of Asking for It, colour the stage with a spectrum of emotions through their boundless energy and charisma. Praise must chiefly be given to Aisling Kearns who portrays Emma, the play’s main character. Kearns is completely captivating in every scene that she appears, as she moves from stereotypical mean girl in the first act, to a tortured recluse in the second act, a transformation achieved through sheer acting genius and superb body language.
Liam Heslin also deserves mention for his portrayal of Brian, Emma’s brother. Heslin’s explosive energy drives much of the second act and the character acts as a much-needed voice for the audience.
While the entire production team have done a superb job of adapting Louise O’Neill’s novel, special credit must also be given Philip Stewart and Jack Phelan, who designed the nauseating sound and video effects for the show respectively. A notable example of this is when the characters attend a GAA match for the Ballinatoom team, during which a seemingly live video of GAA star, Paul, is projected across the stage, appearing to be an almost Big Brother like figure. During the speech, our young characters stand to attention, enthralled with the hero of the hour, which raises a rather interesting point. The young people of Asking for It are raised up to the status of godlike figures and worshipped by the town upon an altar. However, when Emma is accused of “asking for it” after reporting her rape by three middle class men, the town sees fit to tear her down, and come to demonize her, robbing her of her identity. In this way, Asking for It, offers an interesting commentary on how society judges and condemns women on a whim, and the devastating effect this can have on their mental health. As previously mentioned, much of the tragedy of Asking for It, arises because of society’s perception and mistreatment of sexual violence. One sees this exemplified in Emma’s father, played by Simon O’Gorman, who refuses to even acknowledge his daughter’s presence in their shared scenes. Emma’s parents represent a generation with different values and views, and when relied on for help, sometimes fail their children.
Asking for It holds a mirror up to the face of Irish society and forces the viewer to confront its hideous reflection, a heartbreaking masterpiece which deserves to be seen by all. And yet, while the play itself is ultimately a tragic in its content, there is the dim hope that it will force people to speak up about sexual assault and challenge rape culture in the future.
I think to write this review and not address the question of rape and consent would be irresponsible. The truth is, we can no longer afford to keep silent about sexual assault. If ever we hope to challenge rape culture, we all need to have an open and adult conversation about consent. We must challenge behaviour which is harmful to both men and women wherever we see it, whether that’s in a nightclub, in a street, or in our own homes.
We need to talk.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, or have been a victim of sexual violence, please reach out to Dublin Rape Crisis Centre at 1800 77 8888, or The Sexual Violence Centre Cork, at 1800 496 496.