Prima Facie

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

Intimacy and Boundaries in the Rehearsal Room

A few weeks ago I wrote a review of the Street Theatre’s production of Venus In Fur for the ACT Writers’ Centre’s blog Capital Letters. Venus In Fur is a captivating take on sexism and male power both in the theatre and in life. In response to my review, Sue Terry of Whispering Gums posed the question “How do you think the current Geoffrey Rush trial and the discussions about what seems to have been accepted or tolerated, in rehearsals and on stage, fits into the issues explored in this play?”

The verdict in Rush’s defamation case is yet to be delivered. The award-winning Melbourne-based critic Alison Croggon has provided a synopsis of the trial so far on her excellent site Witness. Importantly, she points out that neither Rush nor Eryn Jean Norvill is on trial. Rush’s defamation case centres on whether the Daily Telegraph had enough evidence to publish its claims about his alleged behaviour towards Ms Norvill on the set of the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of King Lear.

While I have no further comment on the Rush case, I feel Sue’s question warrants a look at the culture of the Australian arts scene more broadly, particularly as the #metoo movement progresses. This time last year, Alison Croggon wrote an informed and sensitive piece for Witness about the culture of sexism in Australian theatre [this is pay-walled but I encourage you to join]. Croggon wrote:

I put out a call on social media for anyone who wished to share their stories in confidence with me. The result has been some deeply distressing allegations, which run the gamut from harassment and bullying to serial predation and rape. They have come from women and men working not only in companies, as performers, back stage staff and so on, but in performing arts bureaucracies of every kind, in educational institutions, even in youth theatre. They include well known names and unknown names, and every level of theatre, from major state theatre to independent companies and venues.

Croggon also pointed out that inclusion is “are underwritten by a spectrum of behaviours that are in turn conditioned by grim histories, past and present, of sexual violence.”

When we talk about sexual harassment and violence in the arts, there are a couple of issues at play. One issue is how actors are asked to represent sex (and violence) and the implications for their own emotional, bodily and professional integrity, and another is about creating a safe working environment so that sexual harassment is not tolerated either on or off stage. A third issue relates to inclusion and diversity more broadly, and how the largely white, male gatekeepers create jobs for arts workers from certain backgrounds and perpetuate the telling of certain kinds of stories.

With regard to the first issue, I had until recently taken it for granted that rehearsals are negotiations of power and boundaries between performers. Surely, I thought, actors are carrying out a job, and during rehearsals they would agree on boundaries with their colleagues which should carry over to live performances. Boundaries are especially important where violence, physical contact or simulated sexual contact are directed.

But I was wrong to assume this automatically occurred. There is now a burgeoning profession called “intimacy coaching” which seeks to assist actors and directors navigate this space. An intimacy coach is a theatre professional who works alongside a cast to choreograph difficult scenes, but also, as Van Badham points out in an article for the Guardian, “facilitates a conversation between the production and the actors that affirms trust in what’s taking place.”

The ABC’s Beverley Wang spoke to Claire Warden, an intimacy coach based in New York, about the tenets of her practice. Warden says that because “when we’re acting, we have difficulty telling the difference between real and our imagination,” a key aspect of her practice is to help actors develop a shared sign for when a scene stops. She explains this technique as a reminder of the barrier between art and life:

And if you’re telling a particularly taxing emotional story, or if you’re a doing a particularly heavily intimate or sexual scene, it can be difficult if you don’t have a structure around it, and something that continually lets you know that this is work, and that we’re doing this to serve the story — and it isn’t real.

This is important because it draws a clear line. It is not unheard-of for an actor to use the explicit content of the play they are performing to carry on with sexualised behaviour off stage. It would be interesting to ask Ms O’Brien how this technique applies to a method actor, such as Daniel Day Lewis, given they do not distinguish between on and off screen.

It also seems to me that there is some confusion in public discussion about scenes created by two actors who “have chemistry,” and what actually constitutes that chemistry. In the Q&A episode of 29 October, filmed at the pop-up Globe in Sydney, the discussion turned to the negotiation of performances in sexual scenes. Tony Jones asked theatre director Neil Armfield whether the #metoo movement was having a “chilling effect” in the rehearsal room.  Armfield stated:

I think that there is …in the act of playing, whether…and acting, there is… sexual energy, which, in a sense, is part of an actor’s way of connecting to the audience, as much as connecting within the cast. And I just…and I think that means that we have to be particularly mindful and particularly respectful.

Armfield subsequently went on to say that, though respect and trust are important, the ability to engage in play should not be affected. I have paraphrased Armfield here and a long discussion did ensue on the program, so make sure you watch the episode or read the transcript on the website.

My point in raising this, though, is to question whether the connection actors develop with each other is sexual energy in the literal sense. I recently read the excellent addition to Black Inc.’s Writers On Writers series Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee. Dovey discusses jouissance, the psychoanalytic concept of intellectual ecstasy that was developed by the French theorist Roland Barthes. She quotes French actress Juliette Binoche, who has said that when making a film she needs to have an erotic relationship with the director. Dovey explains that La Binoche does not mean she sleeps with the director, but that they have an intense intellectual relationship that gives rise to jouissance. I wonder if it is this form of connection that actors are, or should be, striving towards. Because if it is not- if it’s sexual connection in the literal sense- surely we run the risk of perpetuating the key message underpinning our society’s sexism: that women only amount to their bodies, and what they do with their bodies is determined by other people.

So does Venus In Fur have anything to say about sexual harassment in theatre? Sure. To recap, Ives’ play revolves around a playwright and director, Thomas Novachek, who is staging an adaptation of the (real life) nineteenth century sadomasochistic novel Venus in Furs by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. The two main characters of the book (and the play that Novachek directs within the larger play) are Vanda von Dunayev and Severin Kushemski. Thomas agrees to let Wanda, an aspiring actress, do a read-through, during which she displays an uncanny grasp on the character of the fictional Vanda. As the read-through progresses, the line between acting and reality becomes blurred, and power constantly shifts as Wanda probes Thomas’s motivations and interpretations of Sacher-Masoch’s work.

By unsettling boundaries between the audition and the play, the audience is pushed to think hard about which character wields power. This is reinforced by the dialogue which explicitly reflects on the roles of the theatre director and actor. After succumbing to Wanda’s goading, he shows her how he would perform both the roles of Vanda and Kushemski. With the shoe on the other foot, Novachek exclaims “This is so hard. I can’t believe I put actors through this.”

By blurring play and reality, Ives is also able to examine the casting of women in theatre and how the roles written for them are generated within a patriarchal, and, potentially, misogynistic context. Novachek says, “[w]e’re all easily explicable. What we’re not is… easily extricable.” The question “extricable from what?” is left hanging, but it raises the spectre of our socially conditioned biases and how those in power are not pushed to reflect on, or change, their attitudes. Further on this point, as I argued in my original piece, there are suggestions in the play that Vanda’s role is a projection of Novachek’s own unconscious desires, which bleeds into the bigger question in theatre and film of the substance of women’s roles, and how women exercise control over the way we are represented in cultural texts.

As Venus In Fur progresses it gets very heated and there are some scenes that portray physical and sexual contact. While watching the performance, I wished I had been present in the rehearsal room to witness how the action had been choreographed. Given Caroline Stacey directed the play, I can safely assume that teasing out the nuanced performances of Craig Alexander and Joanna Richards would be a great lesson for us in all the negotiation of boundaries and the unpicking of our society’s misogyny.

The Continued Relevance of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband

public and private life are different things. They have different laws, and move on different lines.

 I recently attended a screening of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde, which had been captured live at the Vaudeville Theatre in London’s West End (and was staged by former Globe Theatre director Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring company). I studied this play in highschool and was glad to have the opportunity to revisit it. At a certain point the protagonist proclaimed:


How many men there are in modern life who would like to see their past burning to white ashes before them!

I sat up. These words, written over a hundred and twenty years ago, capture the angst of the #metoo era. Surely this is a sentiment the many high profile men who have lost their jobs over the past twelve months due to accusations of sexual harassment would echo. Could An Ideal Husband be the play for our times?

An Ideal Husband centres on a husband and wife, Sir Robert Chiltern (Nathaniel Parker), and his wife, Gertrude (Sally Bretton). Each partner idolises the other. Sir Robert is Under-Secretary for foreign affairs, while Gertrude devotes herself to worthy causes and proclaims her husband to be beyond reproach in all his dealings. Her belief in his high ideals is the basis of her affection.

However, Sir Robert has a secret in his past. While in his twenties, Sir Robert sold a cabinet secret which made himself and a few other investors rich. This misdeed is the origin of his entire fortune and underpinned his entry into public life. Sir Robert is certain that if Gertrude were to find out, she would end their marriage. Along comes the underhanded Mrs Cheveley (Frances Barber) who threatens to reveal all if Sir Robert will not assist her in a scheme of her own.

The interesting thing about Oscar Wilde’s work is how difficult it is to adapt from its late nineteenth century context. Unlike Shakespeare or Chekhov, whose work can be set in different social and political contexts from which they were intended- and indeed this is often the most interesting thing about contemporary productions of them- Wilde’s work remains rooted in the late Victorian era. The production at hand was no exception. It opened with the characters ballroom dancing, and entailed a procession of gowns, bonnets and button holes.

Wilde’s dialogue and themes, however, remain contemporary. The play premiered in 1895, shortly before Wilde embarked on the disastrous libel lawsuit against the Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde’s lover Lord Douglas, that ruined him by revealing his homosexuality. Some critics have argued that Wilde’s own sense of his impending downfall permeates the play. Daniel Mendelsohn, for instance, argued in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) that

When the play’s tortured main character, a man revealed to have a terrible secret in his past, addresses a series of lengthy, impassioned, and nakedly illogical pleas for sympathy to his wife—a woman whom he goes on to chastise for having insufficient sympathy for his flaws—it is impossible not to think of Wilde himself.

Emer O’Sullivan, author of a biography that deals with the sexual downfalls of both Wilde and his father, also argues that “these satires on the good wife were connected to the estranged relations with [his wife] Constance… But he also universalised the blackness in his own heart, letting his feelings of fear out in a burst as he pictures Sir Robert’s future.”

Such claims can easily be upheld. In one scene, for instance, Sir Robert entreats to his wife that “no one should be judged entirely on their past.” Gertrude disagrees, proclaiming “One’s past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged.”

I also feel that this exchange is strongly reminiscent of the public discussions that follow allegations of sexual misconduct against yet another high profile man as the #metoo movement continues. How does someone who has behaved badly in the past genuinely atone for their wrongdoing? And what does the public do with this new cache of information?

While the links to Wilde’s increasingly precarious marital situation are apparent in the exchanges between Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern, his use of dramatic irony comically and poignantly reveals broader tensions between public and private morality. Where in Shakespeare insight is often revealed by the fool, in Wilde it is the dandy who speaks the truth. So it is Lord Goring (Freddie Fox), who has an intense commitment to selecting the right buttonhole and “only [talks] seriously on the first Tuesday in every month, from four to seven,” who ultimately emerges as the play’s guiding light. Through some comic maneuvering he saves Sir Robert Chiltern’s reputation and marriage, and, as Emer O’Sullivan points out, “The dandy stands between stage and audience, orientating the public’s moral perception from inside the play…distancing them from their moral expectations with urbane witticisms that reduce the social order to predictable duplicity.” The audience is implicated in the duplicity. Just as Wilde was both a product of his society and a manifestation of its hypocritical moral code, Lord Goring lulls the audience into a false sense of security with his comic armory, then demolishes it as viewers are forced to laugh at themselves.

Ultimately, in An Ideal Husband, as in many of his plays, the foibles and false virtues of Wilde’s society are hidden in plain sight- as are the misdeeds of the men caught up in #metoo. Daniel Mendelsohn summed this up in his NYRB piece:

…in order to do justice to Wilde, to both the life and the art, we must always strive to see not only the exaltation but the humiliation, not only the pathos and suffering but the ubris and arrogance, not only the dazzling clarity of vision about the flaws in his society but a penchant for self-deception that suggested a profound self-destructiveness, not only the beauty but the peril. Wilde himself saw it all too clearly, if too late: an intricate appreciation of the complex and often deceptive relationship between things as they really are and things as we wish them to be.

I’m not suggesting that Wilde’s work is the ideal vehicle for deconstructing modern misogyny. It does not have the force of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The female characters are thinly drawn- although it could be argued that Wilde had an eye for the suffering induced by a stultifying husband. Similarly, a couple of witty epithets does not amount to a reckoning of the systematic violence against women that the #metoo movement seeks to expose. Wilde does, however, impart a salutary lesson on hero worship, by pointing out that commitment to an ideal is often premised on willful blindness. He would subsequently take this concern to extremes in The Importance of Being Earnest, in which two female characters dream of falling in love with men called Earnest, then latch on to men who call themselves Earnest purely to win their affections. The play premiered in February 1895. By May of that year he had been sentenced to hard labor and became the subject of his society’s taunts and jeers.

There is so much more that could be said, if only a director could find a way to stage a contemporary adaptation.


Further Reading

Emer O’Sullivan, The Fall of the House of Wilde, Bloomsbury.

Daniel Mendelson, The Two Oscar Wildes, NYRB