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Theatre in Review: Prima Facie (Golden Theatre)

Jodie Comer. Photo: Bronwen Sharp

Prima Facie is an impassioned closing argument disguised as a play. It directly addresses the festering social issue of violence against women in a way that is guaranteed to bring spectators to their feet. And it features a star performance from Jodie Comer that makes it impossible to look away from the stage. But in making its case, in its urgent desire to sound a societal alarm, it undermines its best efforts, leaving playwright Suzie Miller's obvious manipulations in full view. It may do some good in attracting a wide audience to its right-thinking point of view, even if its drama is overwhelmed by polemics. But I wish it were more elegantly written.

Comer, the sole cast member, is Tessa, a British criminal-defense barrister who revels in her skill at taking apart the testimony of accusers on the witness stand. She handles a great many sexual assault causes, a fact that she attributes to the luck of the draw -- or, as she describes it, the "cab rank rule." As she explains, "If your court diary is free and you can't get a brief for anything in your field of law...then you have to say yes" to the next case that comes up. "It's like a taxi stand," she adds.

Nevertheless, Tessa relishes what she calls "the game of law," demonstrating with gusto her skill at picking apart testimonies. When it comes to the business of discrediting, her technique is elegant, understated; her victims never see it coming. After oh-so-casually setting up one poor fool, "I fire four questions like bullets," she says. "Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Face, shock. Utter annihilation." It's not too much to say that Tessa gets a physical high from such takedowns.

And why not? As she makes clear, her law school experience was an elimination race, with many (if not most students) expected to drop out long before graduation. And for those who stay the course? "You will be the ones to change the country," a professor tells them. No wonder Tessa compares herself to a thoroughbred, tensed and ready to spring out of the gate. Adding to that sense of achievement is the fact that she has climbed out of the working classes. (Her beloved mother still cleans offices for a living when not tending to her brother, a drunk on the dole.) By any yardstick, hers is a remarkable success story.

Indeed, exuding no small sense of self-satisfaction, she claims a moral dimension to her career. "Defense is about human rights. Yes. Human rights. The right to innocence unless there's a reasonable doubt." And for those annoying people at dinner parties who wonder, "How do you act for someone you know did it?" she has a simple reply. "The job is not to know, it's to not know."

After forty-five minutes or so of the lady protesting so ardently, it will be obvious to everyone in the auditorium that she is being set up for a terrible fall. After Tessa and a colleague impulsively enjoy a quickie on the couch in his chambers, they follow up with a proper date. Back at her place after considerable consumption of vodka, gin, and wine, she ends up with her head in the toilet bowl -- by her own description, vomiting her guts out. Staggering back to bed, her companion forces himself on her, putting a hand over her face to prevent her from crying out.

This passage is written so vividly that anyone who has been a victim of sexual assault will want to think twice about attending a performance of Prima Facie. In one swift, awful gesture, Tessa understands what it is to be the victim -- the feelings of powerlessness and dehumanization. Compounding the horror, her companion finishes and falls asleep, uncaring, and apparently feeling utterly entitled to his actions. Unfortunately, she immediately forgets her legal training and rushes into the shower, ritually cleansing herself and destroying crucial evidence. If you can accept this decision unquestioningly, you will most likely have no problem with the rest of Prima Facie

To be clear, I am not saying that Tessa's transformation from apex predator to psychologically shattered casualty is unrealistic; rather, Miller's depiction of it is too thoroughly contrived. Tessa's unthinking, unnuanced embrace of her career in the first half contrasts too starkly with her profoundly shattered state following the assault. The scene in which, taking the stand, she is undone by the same lawyerly strategies at which she once excelled, is painful to watch; it was especially gripping to see it last week, even as Donald Trump's legal team tried to discredit E. Jean Carroll on the stand. But, in making her point, Miller compromises her heroine, stripping her of her considerable brains and cunning.

Admittedly, Miller addresses this point, giving Tessa a soaring courtroom speech in which she says, "When a woman has been violated, it is a corrosive wound, one that begins with terror and pain deep in the body, it then overtakes the mind, the soul." She adds, "If a woman is rattled by reliving the nightmare in court, if a woman's experience of the rape is not the way the court likes it to be, then, we conclude that she is prone to exaggeration. And it is because of this that she is so often disbelieved." For all its power, it is one of the many moments in Prima Facie when rhetoric overtakes drama. Even with the jury temporarily dismissed from the room, it is unlikely that Tessa would be allowed to address the court in this manner.

Whatever reservations you might have, director Justin Martin stages Prima Facie with prosecutorial vigor, especially when calling up the rainstorm into which Tessa wanders, stunned by the violence done to her. Miriam Buether's set, a room filled with legal briefs, eventually becomes a black void hauntingly lit by Natasha Chivers. Willie Williams adds a number of video touches, most dramatically when Tessa's interview at the police station is displayed in real time on a smallish screen that appears out of nowhere. At first, the use of Rebecca Lucy Taylor's melodramatic underscoring feels distracting, but the sound designers Ben and Max Ringham keep it under control, adding key effects such as pop music and a persistent, percussive heartbeat.

Comer, making her stage debut, is not a subtle actress, but she is a forceful one -- prowling the stage, leaping from a table to make a point, and, by way of summing up, insisting, "A woman's experience of sexual assault does not fit the male-defined system of truth," and adding, "The law is an organic thing. Defined by us. Constructed by us, in light of our experiences. All of ours, and so, there are no excuses anymore. It must change." It's a powerful conclusion to a sometimes-frustrating play. --David Barbour

(1 May 2023)

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