I thought I knew what I was in for going to see Asking For It. Powerful, provocative, hard-hitting, shocking.
These were the words cropping up in the stream of social media dispatches from the previews of the production, staged as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival.
The play, adapted from the book by Cork writer Louise O’Neill, is certainly all these things but it is also much more.
While it centres on the aftermath of a sexual assault at a party, the play is also a sharply observed and at times wincingly true-to-life portrayal of a family and its disintegration. As such, it is also funny, infuriating and unbearably sad.
Much of the book is an interior monologue from Emma, and director Annabelle Comyn and Meadhbh McHugh, who has adapted the book for the stage, cleverly maintain that intimate connection with the audience through recorded audio, keeping Emma’s voice immediate rather than retrospective.
The exuberance and restless energy of youth is well captured, the push-pull dynamic of female friendship realistically conveyed, while the boys’ desperate eagerness to belong and their efforts at innuendo and banter are cringingly convincing.
The set design is deceptively simple, blocks of panelled perspex shifting to represent bedroom, school, clubhouse and party, blurred images and disembodied voices mirroring Emma’s sense of disorientation as what is a “great sesh” for the lads becomes a life-destroying event for her.
The rape scenes are conveyed through conversations off-stage, the impact reinforced by disembodied voices representing the vicious taunts on social media, tormenting and torturing Emma.
While at the start of the play, Emma can’t wait to get away from small-town life and the suffocating attentions of her mother, after the assault, she cannot bear to leave the house, and agonises about losing her mother’s support.
The claustrophobia she feels is shared by the audience, with most of the action in the second half confined to the family kitchen, the mundanity of domesticity masking the resentment and recriminations roiling beneath the surface.
The cast is one of the strongest elements of a skilfully-realised production, which stays true to the soul of the book.
Lauren Coe ably carries the weight of an extremely demanding role, with Venetia Bowe also shining in her role as frenemy Zoe, who is struggling with her own secret.
Breathtaking. Powerful. Important. Heartbreaking... The feedback from #AskingForIt previews has been incredible. And tonight we raise the curtain on the official world premiere of this production. Join the conversation https://t.co/68CC5MTlsE pic.twitter.com/DFOTd2ifsp— The Everyman (@EverymanCork) June 15, 2018
Ali White gives a note-perfect performance as Emma’s mum, trying to keep up appearances while “wishing she had the luxury of a nervous breakdown”.
Frank McCusker as Dad is responsible for one of the most affecting moments of the night. When he finally breaks down, it is like a pressure valve being released for the audience, the sobs and sniffles clearly audible around the theatre.
There were tears too but they were silently shed, wiped away as the audience rose to their feet to give a well-deserved standing ovation, and a fitting homecoming for O’Neill.