Prima Facie is a one-woman show written by Suzie Miller, which tackles themes of sexual assault and violence, sexism and class privilege. Originally performed in the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, the show was recorded by the ‘National Theatre Live’, and screened at cinemas around the country from the 21st of July onwards. Impact‘s Hannah Bentley reviews.
Tessa is a young and competitive barrister, who worked hard to achieve success, coming from a working class background. She consistenly wins cases defending alleged sexual assaulters, and attributes her success to the apathy she has for the victims, something she was taught in law school at Cambridge. She states “all that matters is the legal truth”, and talks of undermining the victims when questioning them in court. This is until she herself falls victim to sexual violence; this tragic irony is the key turning point of the play.
Jodie Comer (Killing Eve) plays Tessa Ensler in this award-winning play. The 29-year-old actress from Liverpool gives a stunning performance in her West End debut. She demonstrates exceptional talent by embodying multiple characters, and keeping the audience engaged and hanging off her every word.
The minimal set (designed by Miriam Buether) further shows how talented she is, as with only two tables and some chairs, Comer transports the audience across multiple settings: a lawyer’s office, a police station, Tessa’s bedroom, and even a nightclub.
Illustrates the need for legal reform
The audience follows Tessa on a path of deep remorse and anger at the legal system that she once believed would protect her. Miller’s play illustrates the need for legal reform. The play questions the key legal standard of innocent until proven guilty, which means it can be tricky to convict alleged assaulters during court cases. We are taught to believe victims, and yet the court system is based on believing the victim only once the assault is proven. Loaded against often female claimants – change is needed.
Comer skillfully navigates through Tessa’s honest and raw emotions, giving a breath-taking performance. The audience was laughing one minute and crying the next. This is supported by simple yet effective sound by Ben and Max Ringham, who play swelling music and beats during tense moments to build emotion further.
Lighting (designed by Natasha Chivers) also plays a key role in creating a crescendo during dramatic scenes. This is most notable in the last scene, where files at the back of the stage become illuminated to signify cases where victims lost their battle for justice.
Miller attempts to break the fourth wall
In the final scene, Miller’s script takes on a lecture-like tone with a speech directed at the audience. The camera zooms out from the stage to reveal the audience members in the theatre at the time of the recording. Here, Miller attempts to break the fourth wall, and emphasise the responsibility of society in solving this systemic issue, but doesn’t offer a genuine solution.
I found this ending to be unconvincing, and felt it would have been more powerful to stay in the moment and the drama, in order to keep the audience emotionally invested.
Before the performance is screened, a talk between the writer, Jodie Comer and a white female barrister and police officer is shown, where they discuss the themes of the play. This is less than informative. The optics of this talk, four white women discussing the shortcomings of the law in protecting sexual assault vicitms, is somewhat disappointing. However, I am weary of being too critical of this, as the play only explores this perspective when dealing with the law.
Despite the clunky ending, the play achieves what it set out to do; raise awareness of the unjust experience women face in the legal system, and that the criteria of legal truth simply are not fit for purpose. I was immensely moved by Comer’s portrayal of a woman desperate for justice. I highly recommend watching this production. But do be advised that the trigger warnings are there for a reason.
Featured image courtesy of Alex Watkin. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.
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