Anyone who has ever worked as a defence lawyer will eventually be asked one question, says lawyer and playwright Suzie Miller.
How can you act for someone you think is guilty?
“The truth of the matter is that lawyers are not supposed to think whether they’re guilty or not,” explains Miller. “Your job is to extract the story in the best way possible, and present it to the court. That’s your role. And as long as you only do your role within the rules, and the prosecutor only does their role within the rules, and the jury and the judge do the same, then what’s supposed to come out at the end is justice.”
But when it comes to matters of sexual assault and harassment against women, the rules don’t apply equally.
Miller, whose earlier plays include Sunset Strip and All the Blood and All the Water, writes from the position of having worked in the criminal justice system and as a human rights lawyer.
Her new play, Prima Facie, brings those two worlds together in a production premiering at Griffin Theatre.
“The problem is that in my system, the rules were made up by generations and generations of male judges and male jurors,” says Miller. “None of them really understood what it was like for sexual assault victims.”
Miller has witnessed the effect a court trail has on survivors of sexual abuse and harassment first-hand, many times.
“Often what happens in cases of sexual assault is that people will shop for a female barrister, because it looks better to have a woman defending you. And that’s fine, you’re allowed to do that.
“But that leads to lots of women lawyers doing quite a bit of sexual assault work, even though they’re not necessarily comfortable with it and know that they are operating within a flawed system.”
It’s not your fault
There was a period in her professional life when Miller found herself taking between three and six sexual assault statements a week. “I can tell you now, it is really harrowing,” she says.
While each case was unique, almost all were marked by a similar sense of shame, Miller recalls. “Most of those girls didn’t want to talk to a police officer or disclose to anyone else, because they felt so ashamed that it happened to them,” says Miller.
“But if you’re a victim of a sexual assault, it’s not your fault. You shouldn’t have to be ashamed about it. You should be the one who survived it and has a voice. But what our trial system does is take away your voice.”
Trying to speak
That loss of voice is something that can happen to the strongest, the most articulate and knowledgeable women. It’s what happens to Tessa, a lawyer played by Sheridan Harbridge, in Prima Facie.
“In the first half of the show, I’m playing a woman in that part of her career where it’s like a really sexy game,” says Harbridge. “She feels like she is flying. Everything is going right. When she is in that place, she is the hero.
“Then when things take a turn, it’s like she is jarred out of her own movie. A man takes away everything from her in one moment: her extraordinary ability; the career she has made … he takes away her innocence and her ambition.
“In the second half we see a woman who has a hesitation. That is heartbreaking. The worst bit isn’t the assault. It’s seeing what is taken away from her. Her beautiful life has been destroyed.”
Re-traumatised by a system
Prima Facie is proving “more confronting than I thought it was going to be,” says director Lee Lewis.
“The more time you spend pulling apart this story of repression the more you think about your own life. Things just keep popping up, things you didn’t let yourself think at the time.”
The play’s topicality is similarly confronting, Lewis adds.
“Suzie is speaking very clearly to the current conversation. It all feels very alive – to the point that Suzie is sending bits of script to a defamation lawyer to make sure we’re not getting into trouble doing this. You can’t get away from certain court cases we’ve seen recently and the strangeness of a legal system in which survivors of sexual assault are re-traumatised by a system that isn’t suited to telling their stories.”
The process of making the play is one of celebration and utter seriousness, Lewis says.
“A lot about it is really joyous – especially when we are creating that space in which everything is going well [for Tessa]. It’s that space that we believe, as women, wasn’t possible maybe 20 years ago. So you’ve got a character who feels on top of the world, who is playing the men’s game and winning and loves showing off that virtuosity – but then she runs into those structural obstacles that say, no you can’t progress beyond this point.
“That’s the point where the fight has to get bigger.”
One actor, one chair
Taking a break from the one-to-one of rehearsal, Lewis says she went to see Avengers: Endgame.
“It was so weird to come back from that kind of epic storytelling to this. But I felt we are connected in some way.
What Marvel has done over the sweep of these films – the bigger work of the project – is to change the way these stories are made, change the nature of representation on our screens and influence the imaginative space of the country.
“You can do it with all the resources of Marvel Studios and you can do it with one actor and a chair at Griffin. It’s all the same project.”
It also plays at Riverside Theatres from July 3-6.