Prima Facie is a 90-minute one-woman play that centres on Tess (Sheridan Harbridge), a high flying criminal barrister who, after being sexually assaulted, finds herself on the other side of the courtroom.
The play begins with Tess describing the thrill of winning in court and the way she overcame the assumptions of her privileged law school peers to become a successful lawyer. She has fully bought into the theatre of her profession and does not demonstrate a lot of empathy as she dramatically relays the thrill of trapping a witness in the dead ends of their own recollections (“you have stated that you drank four gin and tonics, two vodka shots and numerous glasses of wine. Would it be fair to say that you were drunk?”), and the jokes she shares with her colleagues about “naïve” graduates who get confused about the difference between legal truth and the actual truth (“what if he admits he did it? Do I still have to defend him?”). Only legal truth matters, only legal instincts matter.
Between courtroom victories and after-work drinks, Tess is offered better chambers on a more prestigious floor by a QC that she admires, and also starts dating one of her colleagues, Damien. One night this same colleague rapes Tess at her own house after they have had dinner and drinks together. They have had consensual sex on two occasions- the second time being on the same night as the rape. It is clear to the audience that the act is not consensual; Tess narrates the incident, describing how she struggles but is pinned down, and how she tries to call out but is gagged by Damien’s hand. After 763 days Tess is in court for her hearing, but despite knowing all the ins and outs of the system, cannot convince the jury to believe her.
The format of the play is the key to its effectiveness. As criminal barrister turned complainant, Tess embodies both sides of the law. She fully understands how her own choices (to drink alcohol, o invite a member of the opposite sex back to her house, to seek to advance herself at work) will be (and are) used against her in court, and uncomfortably recalls having done the same thing herself in the course of examining witnesses. The irony is that although the audience hears only her voice throughout the play, ultimately it is her character that is rendered voiceless. The men in this play- the men who rape and the men who uphold the legal system that allows rapists to get away with it- hold the power despite being physically absent. This irony is amplified by the staging, which consists of black background and floor, and a single office chair on a raised platform, drawing attention to the way the legal system theoretically allows women the opportunity to speak in court, but ultimately does not administer this right in a meaningful or effective way.
The playwright Suzie Miller is a former lawyer herself. In the program notes Miller reflects on her experience working within a system that is supposed to deliver justice, but which seems rigged to do the opposite:
The legal system is shaped by the male experience. While innocence/guilt focuses on whether the (usually) male person believes there is consent or not provided from the (usually) female person, it has always been the victims, (usually) women, who are on trial, cross-examined and made to relive their experience, only to be doubted and have their motives for reporting such a hideous crime questioned. Significantly, research shows that women giving evidence in sexual assault cases aren’t believed, even by other women.
The Director Lee Lewis also provides reflections on the play’s broader cultural significance. The focus on Tess’s character taps into the social context of the #metoo movement which aims to render women’s voices audible as a means to challenge male dominated social structures. Lee states that:
[Suzie Miller] writes with a language that has struggled to find a place on the traditionally male stage that is mainstage theatre. She is one of an extraordinary number of female playwrights who have continued to create despite not being produced by major companies… This play won the 2018 Griffin Award. It would not have won ten years ago because the audience did not want to hear this story then.
Ultimately, the play becomes an impassioned plea to change the system. During the trial, Tessa is granted voir dire, an opportunity to speak in front of counsel without the jury. Tessa uses the opportunity to draw attention to the male-dominated nature of the system, and how it is designed to discredit women. Her speech underpins the irony inherent in the title of play. Prima facie means that, at first glance, there must be enough evidence to establish a case. Tessa points out that the memory of rape is crystal clear for women, while the legal system is premised on degrading women’s ability to reliably articulate what they have suffered. As Tess demonstrated to her peers who wrote her off at the beginning of law school, not everything is as it appears at first glance, and if a concerted effort was made to uncover the facts instead of spinning plausible alternate stories at every opportunity, perhaps the legal system would offer some degree of justice to women.
The pain and suffering experienced by Tess is palpable, but there is one aspect of her characterisation that I found particularly challenging to interpret. At the beginning, Tess talks freely about corroding the stories prosecution witnesses have prepared, and states that if the defence wins it is either because they landed a better story or because the prosecution didn’t execute their case properly. Despite the pantomime Tess willingly participates in when in court, she seems to be able to morally exculpate herself from the shortcomings of the system, but then at the end of the play she talks about how her faith in the legal system has been broken.
How are we to read this? Is she reckoning with the way she morally deluded herself during her courtroom battles to pursue the particular image of career success that she desired? Or was she an accomplice in her own defeat? The latter strays towards victim blaming, which the play is ultimately trying to redress. My preferred interpretation is that our society as a whole is implicated in the ongoing maladministration of justice for women; the legal system’s poor grasp of how sexual assault affects women is shaped by both the misogyny that runs through our culture, and by our failure to defend women from it.
Prima Facie was a timely, well-acted and gripping play that could well be a catalyst for social change.
Written by Suzie Miller
Directed by Lee Lewis
Canberra Theatre, 29 June 2019
Griffin Theatre Company