Please be aware that my review of this play which discusses rape, sexual assault and the handling of sexual assault cases in a court setting may be upsetting. It also contains spoilers, but having said that, had I read it prior to seeing the play, it would not have spoilt my enjoyment, it would just have made me determined to see it, particularly in the wake of #MeToo. If this review does upset you, then there is a list of organisations that offer support on the Prima Facie website https://primafacieplay.com/trigger-warning/
I hadn’t realised that Prima Facie, a National Theatre Live production was back at the Curzon on August 31st until yesterday when I was updating my ‘What’s on in Clevedon?’ pages. If you haven’t seen it then I urge you to go. I’m a very regular cinema and theatre-goer and I think it was one of the most powerful performances, if not the most powerful, that I have ever seen on screen or stage. I would of course have loved to see it at the Harold Pinter theatre but happily it translates very successfully to film. I honestly believe that it will play a critical role in our consideration of legal changes that need to take place in a society that is belatedly paying far greater attention to the question of consent and where people are questioning a system that reveals shocking data, such as:
- In the nine months to September 2021, there were 170,973 recorded sexual offences – a 12% increase compared with 152,620 in the same period the previous year
- Of these, 63,136 (37%) were rapes, up 13% from the previous year
- Nearly 33% of rape victims withdraw their complaint in the first three months of it being recorded
- In the first nine months of 2021 the average time between offence and a court hearing is 1,020 days or over 2 and half years – 25% increase on 2020
- Only 1.3% of rapes are prosecuted
Something has to change!
(Data taken from the Schools Consent Project and based on data from the Office of National Statistics.)
Prima Facie is a one-woman play, starring BAFTA-winning actress Jodie Comer who played psychopathic predator Villanelle in Killing Eve. It’s written by Australian playwright and former lawyer Suzie Miller and directed by Justin Martin. The musical score is created by Rebecca Lucy Taylor aka Self-Esteem, and the set design and costume are the work of designer Miriam Buether. The lighting designer was Natasha Chivers, the sound designers Ben and Max Ringham, and the Treatment Studio was that of Willie Williams. I feel compelled to mention all of these creatives because their work was as brilliant as Comer’s performance which was energetic, enthralling and electrifying from start to finish.
Prima Facie is Comer’s debut stage performance and what a debut! Her 100-minute monologue is about the inadequacies of the legal system for women who have been sexually assaulted and who are brave enough to come forward seeking justice. It addresses the humiliating legal process with its need to relive the experience with crystal clear clarity, nitpicking detail of what took place and the need to justify every single action.
It tells the story of Tessa Ensler, a super confident, Cambridge-educated, hot-shot criminal defence lawyer from a working-class Liverpudlian background. Tessa specialises in defending men who have been accused of sexual assault. The play opens with Tessa’s faultless, fast-paced stream of consciousness which reveals her feelings about her family, her journey to becoming a defence lawyer and how she is perceived in the courtroom as a woman. The pace of the dialogue is rapid Comer’s performance is hugely physical and it all aligns beautifully with the musical score of Self Esteem which is an intrinsic element of the play’s narrative as are the sounds of designers Ben and Max Ringham who introduce a musical heartbeat at the points of high tension.
The level of intensity Comer portrays is furious. She hardly takes a breath and nor do we! Comer’s performance demands your attention from the outset, there are also some very comedic moments in the first half which she delivers with perfect comic timing all of which helps to establish her connection with the audience.
Self-assured Tessa is rising through the ranks of the legal profession and is making quite a name for herself on the circuit. She is on fire in the courtroom! She has an unwavering belief in the word of the law and this combined with her finely honed cross-examination skills means that she has never lost a case. Doubts, nuances, and inconsistencies are not tolerated, as she states:
“There is no real truth, only legal truth,”
Tessa works hard, she plays hard and is ensconced in the culture of Chambers where she is at the start of a relationship with Julian one of her colleagues.
And then everything changes. A consensual date with Julian turns into rape and Tessa finds herself on the other side of the bench, subjected to the weight of the strategies she herself uses against victims when defending men accused of the same.
There is no interval in this 100-minute monologue, the two Acts are separated by a rainfall that envelops Tessa who decides to report her attacker to the police. The play skips forwards 782 days after her assault, to the beginning of the trial – a length of time that is shockingly not untypical for a rape case to come to court.
The Tessa that Comer presents in the second half is quite astonishing – she is a shadow of her former self. Everything has changed.
In the first half, she owns the stage which is a single-set barrister’s chambers comprised of three-sided floor-to-ceiling case files, leather chairs and mahogany tables. She leaps and gyrates on the tables as she relates her courtroom triumphs, she turns the chairs into witness stands and pulls folders from the surrounding shelves. She is alive! She is confident! She is grounded in a world where she is flourishing and feels secure. In the second half, her movement is restricted, her world shrinks, there is little set, she is encircled by darkness and performs under a spotlight emphasising the irony that she, albeit the victim, is in essence, the one who is required to prove her innocence.
She looks different! Gone is the alpha female who dominates the stage adopting power poses – she is a mere shadow of her former self – timorous, confused, trembling. The pride and glee that she exuded in the first act and which saw her bounding around the stage are replaced with a physical stiffness and a level of pain that is at times unbearable. The array of emotions she displays throughout is extraordinary and the fluidity with which she moves from one to the other is phenomenal. Her vocal range is equally spectacular, as is her ability to slip in and out of accents with the greatest of ease. She portrays multiple parties involved in dialogues – a courtroom judge, an exasperating law student and an unfeeling police officer.
In the second act, the distraught Tessa is now on the other side of the law. This woman whose career is built on defending rapists and discrediting male victims, who is the mistress of the courtroom now finds herself subjected to endless, intimidating, personal questions; her answers are twisted and misinterpreted; she has no control.
She is horrified by the picture she paints of her actions as she cross-examines herself: she knew her attacker; they had been on a previous date; she had invited him into her home; they had already had sex and………..she has destroyed evidence – she showered and she deleted her texts. It could not be worse!
What remains constant between the two acts, is Comer’s huge ability and versatility as an actress, her handling of the humorous, light-hearted moments in the first act is as skilful as her handling of the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking high points in the second.
A friend of mine who hasn’t seen the play commented on it not being new material and yes he’s right, the reputation of our ineffective legal system which fails to protect those who have been sexually assaulted is well known. But knowing it intellectually is one thing, provoking such an emotional response transmitted by the rage and helplessness of Comer’s character is the strength of the play and has reopened the conversation between the legal community and wider society.
Some critics have said that they found Miller’s writing too polemic, and too didactic, particularly at the end of the play in Tessa’s final blistering speech as she faces the audience, sobbing and addressing all of these important issues. Possibly! But surely in the face of a judicial system which continues to fail women don’t we need to be unequivocally vocal. The statistics relating to sexual violence that I shared with you at the start of this review would indicate a resounding YES!
Will it make a difference? Do the arts have the power to provoke such change? Suzie Miller believes so:
“I am a playwright who believes in the power of theatre, believes in it with every fibre of my being. Believes in the strength of storytelling as an agent of change. Believes in audiences and in igniting imaginations so we can step into a character’s lived reality. If I am being truly honest when I ask myself: ‘what do I want out of theatre?’, the answer would be: I passionately want the same thing I passionately wanted as a human rights lawyer – I want to change the world.”
Interestingly, in conversation with an Old Bailey judge, he commented to Suzie:
“The courts are not fit for purpose when it comes to examining sexual assault because it’s been defined by a very male-focused, a very privileged, male, white focus.”
When it showed in Australia, in New South Wales, the Law Reform Commission went to see it, as did the Governor of New South Wales. One night the auditorium was made up of all women lawyers, barristers, judges, and politicians with a big discussion afterwards about how to effect change.
I do hope you get a chance to see this wonderful play which I would describe as a career-defining performance for Jodie Comer. I am sure she will be shortlisted for the 2023’s Olivier Award for Best Theatre Actress and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she and the Prima Facie team received a clutch of awards from the States where she opens on the bright lights of Broadway in 2023.
I can’t wait to see what she’s in next. In my view, she is the most exciting actress of her generation.
Prima Facie is supporting The Schools Consent Project, a charity dedicated to educating and empowering young people to understand and engage with the issues surrounding consent and sexual assault. Their volunteers lead workshops around the legal definitions of consent and assault in secondary schools and youth groups.
Don’t forget if this review has upset you, then there is a list of organisations that offer support on the Prima Facie website https://primafacieplay.com/trigger-warning/