There are few books that I have had such a visceral feeling whilst reading as Louise O’Neill’s devastating novel Asking For It. The novel explores sexual consent and the aftermath in such a painfully realistic way that I had to put the book down for two weeks whilst reading it because I feared that feeling in my guts might never go away.
Having been adapted for stage by Irish playwright Meadhbh McHugh, and produced by Landmark Productions Ireland and The Everyman (Cork), the play has received huge acclaim, including a sold-out season at Ireland’s National Theatre. The stage adaptation came to the Birmingham Rep for its UK premiere, and as soon as I found out it was showing, I knew I had to see it, if only to find out if nearly five years on that feeling in my gut ever went away.
Asking For It takes place in a small, close-knit town in Ireland, about a group of students going into their final year in school, when at a party something happens to one of the girls. The second half of the novel, and indeed the second act of the play, explores the aftermath of the horrific act, the impact it has on Emma, the survivor, her family, her attackers and town that unravels as people chose sides.
Lauren Coe, who reprises her role as Emma having played the character at the world premiere in 2018, is superb as she moves from the self-assured and somewhat unlikeable main character through to the hollow shell of a young woman after the attack. The family dynamics and small Irish town mentality play out well Dawn Bradfield’s Mam and Simon O’Gorman’s Dad characters. But it is likely Liam Heslin as Emma’s brother Bryan where many of the audience will see themselves, in the character who is frustrated at the unwillingness to believe the attack, despite proof, and anger at criminal justice system and community.
It is undoubtably a hard play to watch, as it invites the audience to ask themselves to explore their own feelings towards consent and instances in their own lives. The first act is much more action-driven as it sets the scene of a not particularly likeable main character and the events that lead to her being at that party. The second half is slower as it focuses on how the events on that night impact the characters. For me the second half is all the more powerful as it explores, through the microcosm of the survivor’s family and the town around them, how society reacts to those who have been sexually assaulted. It is painfully realistic and the writers are not letting the audience off easily.
It didn’t matter that I knew what was going to happen, the stage adaptation of Asking For It is just a brutal as the novel. It feels trite to call it powerful and thought-provoking but it is all those and more; Asking For It is a play which delivers a cold hard dose of reality about a sensitive and difficult subject matter that you will feel to your core.
Read the book, watch the play – enjoyable might not be the right word, but you won’t be sorry you did. I can’t recommend both enough.
Asking For It is at the Birmingham Rep until Saturday 15 February, with tickets from £10. To book tickets, visit https://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/