Content warning: This production contains descriptions of sex scenes and sexual assault.
This isn’t life. This is law.
Directed by Lee Lewis and played out powerfully on the Bille Brown Theatre’s corner stage, Suzie Miller’s scorching one-woman play Prima Facie has finally opened in Brisbane after a year’s delay due to COVID-19. Starring Sheridan Harbridge as Tessa, Prima Facie is a call for change in a legal system built by men, for men, and a potent reminder of the way that the system remains stacked against sexual assault survivors.
A successful defence barrister, Tessa hasn’t lost a case in months. From a less privileged background than many of her peers, she has worked hard to reach the top, to become a “winner”, but finds herself on the other side of the bench when she is sexually assaulted on a date with a colleague. As her judgement and her memory are called into question and Tessa is forced to relive the trauma repeatedly in chasing a conviction, her belief in the law and the so-called justice system is stretched to its limits.
While other legal terminology was used throughout the work, prima facie – Latin, essentially meaning “on the face of it” – was not referenced directly in the work, although a Google search informs me that the term means that there is sufficient evidence for a case to proceed to trial. Beyond the legal system’s treatment of sexual assault cases, Prima Facie also touched on the difficult, sometime fraught relationships between police and the courts; the issues that arise when the system becomes a “win/lose” tally for lawyers’ egos; and the institutions of wealth, power, and patriarchy that close ranks when one of their own is in danger – private schools, prestigious universities, nepotistic law firms.
The play was well-paced, building a clear and full picture of Tessa as both an individual and a professional. She is a cut-throat barrister but also a woman, a friend, a daughter, and a sister. Prima Facie also addressed the shame, gaslighting, and second-guessing that survivors commonly experience, and showed Tessa buoyed by support from the women in her life, particularly her long-distance best friend and her mother.
With its themes of sexual assault, survivors’ stories, and questions of consent, Prima Facie continues to be topical after #MeToo, after #TimesUp. Premiering at Griffin Theatre Company in 2019, it opens in Queensland as Australia is wrestling with sexual assault allegations in its highest offices of power (not to mention that consent education debacle with the milkshakes), as well as with the ordinary, horrifying reality of its sexual assault and domestic violence statistics. The play is an unmistakeable call for reform in a system built and administered by men, for men, but which consistently lets down women and girls. As Miller wrote in her playwright’s note, …the legal system is shaped by the male experience: its cases decided by generations of male judges, its laws legislated by generations of white male politicians, and built against a backdrop where women were categorised once as the property of their husbands, brothers, fathers. So sexual assault law does not fit the experience of women.
Sheridan Harbridge, alone on stage for 100 minutes in this emotionally charged work, was outstanding in the role of Tessa. Compelling and heartbreaking, she held the audience’s attention from the first moments and delivered a natural, funny, and emotional performance that moved me to tears. Harbridge was charming and confident, arrogant but still immensely likeable because the character she presented was so real and relatable. In especially tense or emotional moments, the theatre was so silent that the only sound as Harbridge paused between lines was the soft buzz of the AV equipment overhead. The audience stayed on its feet, applauding her, for three curtain calls.
Design by Renée Mulder was minimalist, a single office chair on a raised platform in the centre of the stage. Harbridge was dressed in monochrome for the first portion of the play, with a change in outfit marking the transition for Tessa between barrister and complainant. A wedding ring – presumably the actor’s own, as Tessa was portrayed as a single woman – caused some distraction, given that everything else on the stage was so carefully curated. Composition and sound design by Paul Charlier was subtle, a heart pounding in the courtroom, and lighting design by Trent Suidgeest was dramatic by contrast, using warm reds and sharp spotlights to support changes in time and location as well as to the emphasise the emotions of a scene. Projections were used effectively, clearly illustrating time skips in the storytelling.
Through the lens of one woman’s experiences on both sides of the bench, Prima Facie condemns a system which doubts and retraumatises victims while asking little of alleged perpetrators – a drawn-out process that can take years to reach the courtroom, assuming that it makes it to the courtroom at all. The play asks us to demand more from our legal system but also from our friends, our family, our colleagues, and ourselves in believing and supporting survivors of sexual assault, and in changing our social narrative about “crazy women” who “lie for attention” and to “ruin men’s lives.”
A powerful solo performance, Prima Facie tells a story of fury, frustration, and disillusionment with the legal system that is timely and, unfortunately, likely to be timely for a while yet.