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Prima Facie

"a steely play overlaid with delicate, insightful emotional work"

Audrey review: Suzie Miller's new play shows us all the ways in which the legal system is unfairly made and inherently broken.

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Prima Facie

Date: 25 May 2019

One in three Australian women have been sexually assaulted.

Take in that statistic. Consider its implications. Think of the people you know in your life. Map them before you, join the names and faces with a spool of thread.

One in three.

Do you see it? The map you’ve made out of thread is your community. Every part of it is touched by sexual assault. And who is made to carry the weight of it? The victims.

Prima Facie, Suzie Miller’s cathartic new play at Griffin Theatre Company, walks straight into that map, rips the threads apart, and asks that we find new ways of weaving ourselves together.

When a sexual assault case goes to trial, it’s the person who was assaulted who is questioned on the stand.

The alleged perpetrator does not have to answer for their crimes. The system is set up to catch victims in their inconsistencies. It’s a system created historically by men, and it does a great disservice to the victims of sexual violence, who are statistically more likely to be women.

Prima Facie is here to show us all the ways in which this system is unfairly made and inherently broken.

It’s the story of Tess (Sheridan Harbridge), a relentless defence barrister. She’s worked hard to get to the top of her game, fighting her law school classmates and colleagues from more privileged backgrounds to be on equal footing, working tirelessly to be polished, perfect, and unbeatable. Finally, things are falling into place. She’s up for a new job on a new floor at Chambers. Maybe she’s falling for someone. She relishes her victories.

And then it happens, the thing one in three women have experienced, and everything changes.

Miller used to practice criminal law, and Prima Facie is written with valuable legal insight. It’s also written with a shrewd, compassionate eye both for victims failed by the system, and for those in the audience who are intimately familiar with those failings.

As Tess reports the crime and prepares for her day in court – on the other side of the bar, for once – Miller’s language is empathetic, coiling with tension and despair, but always aware that its audience doesn’t come into this play as spectators.

One in three Australian women have been sexually assaulted.

Every single person in the audience has been touched by it.

We are fellow actors in the play’s story.

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Miller’s writing is sharp, urgently precise, and yet still evokes beauty; it’s a steely play overlaid with delicate, insightful emotional work.

In the hands of Sheridan Harbridge, a performer who invites you into her characters’ inner life without hesitation, it soars: she invites us to laugh when it’s safe to laugh; when she cries, a quick glance around the audience shows that yes, most of us really do cry with her.

But this work is most successful because of the triumvirate at its core: Miller’s well-judged script; Harbridge’s generous performance, and Lee Lewis’s clear, empathetic direction.

Lewis finds nuances in the script and notes them onstage, whether by a shift in lighting (design by Trent Suidgeest), sound (Paul Charlier has created a creeping note of warning that feels both recognisable and fresh) or pacing and staging.

The set (by Renée Mulder) itself is dark and bare: just an empty chair on a raised platform signifying victimhood, the flawed system of prosecuting sexual assault cases, the act of law.

Lewis has created a steady, true production that supports the script and protects it.

Tess reports her assault even though she knows that the system of law – the thing she loves and believes in – will likely not grant her justice. She’s won sexual assault cases by poking holes in the stories of traumatised women. She knows it will likely happen to her in turn. She chastises herself for behaving with emotional rather than rational instinct after the crime occurred; it won’t look good in court.

Women who testify about their assault are often deemed ‘not credible’ because their memories, and the way they talk about those memories, are changed and informed by trauma.

Prima Facie shows us this flaw in the system, but also the ways we could change it. In this way, the play is a living document, a map for change. It’s theatre that holds our hands and says: there could be justice for those one in three.

We can change the law.

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