Josephine Balfour Oatts talks to playwright and actor Victoria Cano about simplifying the grey area of sexual assault and consent.

Three years ago, Victoria Cano became a victim of sexual assault. Or at least, she thought she did. At the time of the incident, she had been close to the perpetrator. They were colleagues, and there was a hint of flirtation within their friendship. Sometimes, he would drive her home afterwards. It was a confusing time for Victoria. “We are taught that assault can only be one way” she says. So, when she finally felt able to open up about her experience to a later boyfriend, he was quick to invalidate the ordeal. It was only when she came across a self-published blog written by a peer at Northwestern University (IL. USA) that Victoria could finally come to terms with her trauma.

This blog charted her peer’s own encounter with forced sex. “Telling our stories matter” Victoria declares, “I truly believe that she saved my life.” Originally from New York, the playwright and actor decided to translate her journey on to the stage. Pomegranate Season will be performed over three nights as part of the Camden Fringe Festival, an event which she hopes will confuse and provoke her audiences. “We don’t have a good language for consent”, Victoria grimaces, “It’s a grey area.” She will also be playing the title role, Cora, amongst a cast of four others.

Loosely inspired by the Greek myth Rape of Persephone, Pomegranate Season champions the same aggressive and manipulative behaviour that Persephone received at the hand of Hades. Her abduction and subsequent trickery into eating the food of the Underworld – six pomegranate seeds – meant that she was obliged to spend six months of each year with him as his wedded property. Victoria uses this as a means of supporting her own story with fiction, which in turn adds a protective layer to the performance process, acting as a preventative measure in terms of reliving the event.

Victoria finds that she uses humour to manage uncomfortable situations, and as a result there have been many opportunities for comedy throughout the production. “We’re putting on a rape play at the Cockpit Theatre, now that’s hilarious!” she laughs. The narrative responds to this human need for respite, a decision that Victoria feels adds lightness to grappling with what happened to her. “People need to breathe” she says, nodding.

“I want to challenge the world to shift the paradigm around our language of consent”, she asserts, “I think we need to push more.” Harvey Weinstein and Brock Turner are clear examples of what we understand to be a sexual predator, but the spectrum of assault is wide ranging. “No one jumped out of the bushes at me. What I experienced was not what I had been told sexual assault was like.” For Victoria, it was something that started as consensual and then took a wrong turn. Not unlike the comedian Aziz Ansari and his response to the allegations of sexual assault by a woman he dated last year. “It’s a part of rape culture – men who have just pushed that bit too far” she sighs, exasperated.

A derisive conversation began after a rehearsed reading of the show earlier this year. During a Q&A, the audience were divided regarding the nature of Victoria’s experience. Some identified with her narrative, while others disagreed. If anything, this difference in opinion made her desire to stage Pomegranate Season stronger. “I want women to walk out of this play having had their trauma validated” she adds, “and I want men to think ‘Oh God, have I done that to someone?’”. Victoria is glad of the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, and relieved that they have helped to expose well-known predators within the Arts industry. “Everyone knew about Bill Cosby” she says, shaking her head. Before now, women (and some men) have had to develop coded ways with which to keep each other safe.

The characters of Cora and Dan (the offender) are granted the reckoning that Victoria was never able to get. Having initially been denied the ‘label’ of assault, she understands how disempowering the lack of fluency around consent can be. “Only yes means yes, and many things can mean no” she continues, “[but] If I can make one person consider what’s happened to them and notice the pain that they are carrying so that they can reach out and get the help they need, then the play will have done what it was meant to do.” It is clear from Victoria’s story that our society is still very much at the surface of this problem and is yet to dig deeper into issues around rape and other sexual offences. One line in the play reads “Sex isn’t supposed to feel bad”. An astute statement. She smiles wryly. “There is still a lot of work to be done, and I don’t think people should forget that.”

Pomegranate Season is playing at The Cockpit Theatre until August 22nd. For more information and tickets, see http://thecockpit.org.uk/show/pomegranate_season