PRIMA FACIE, Griffin Theatre Co at the SBW Stables Theatre, 17 May-22 June 2019. Photography by Brett Boardman – of Sheridan Harbridge
Suzie Miller’s new (Griffin Award-winning) play Prima Facie opens on a minimal, raised platform designed by Renée Mulder. On it is a matte-black ergonomic office chair. It’s spotlit against black walls and is at once elegant and sinister. Is it there for an interrogation or an execution? Or is it simply a spiffy workplace accessory that might be found in a high-end lawyers’ chambers?
Whatever – it is the focus of attention as its presumed occupier, criminal defence barrister Tessa Ensler (Sheridan Harbridge), enters and prowls around it – circling, casually touching its high back but not sitting in it. All the while she draws us a vivid picture of her work life as a hot and ruthless success. She is the merciless defender of whomever is on trial in the so-called “cab rank rule”. She unquestioningly takes the brief for an accused no matter what he’s accused of, if she’s next in line and available. That’s the way it works.
Even as we’re laughing at her acerbically witty description of her courtroom technique and colleagues on both sides of the bar table, it becomes obvious that she’s overlooking something. It’s how her take-no-prisoners determination to win has made her the “go-to” choice for some pretty unsavoury clients: sexual assault a speciality.
With occasional helpful pointers in the form of words (“Now”, “Then”) projected on the walls of what is otherwise a tightly-lit space (designer Trent Suidgeest) Tessa preens and invites us into her world. She’s awfully pleased with herself, making damn sure we know how brilliant she is at the game.
Basically, she’s not interested in the truth, only the story that she fashions into a win. Tessa’s favourite tactic is all too familiar. She describes with gleeful detail playing “Gotcha” with witnesses she entices into inadvertently putting their feet in holes of their own creation. It’s chillingly realistic – as one might expect from a playwright who is also a lawyer.
In her quest for wins at all costs, Tessa has trashed any number of unsuspecting witnesses, including survivors of rape. “It’s not emotional for me. It’s the game,” she assures us. It’s the law, nothing more, nothing less. However, what is subtly teased out in Miller’s superb play is that the law is not that benign lady holding the scales of justice.
Justice doesn’t actually come into it, because the law was devised by men for men. Particularly when it comes to sex crimes. It’s the patriarchy, stupid. In this instance, Tessa’s fall – or rise, depending where you might be in the legal process – into Law with a capital L is shown to have begun on her first day at law school. Miller neatly hangs the basic premise on Tessa’s first professor telling her class, “Look to your left, look to your right, because one of you won’t be here by the end of the year.”
It’s an urban legend attributed to Harvard Law School and quoted by any number of authors since. In this instance, however, Miller hitches it to the dark second half of the play when Tessa, having now experienced rape herself, says to the no longer laughing audience, “Look to your left, look to your right, one in three of you has been raped or sexually assaulted.”
Why Tessa decides to go to court against her rapist is revealed in clues Miller cannily drops into the narrative. That Tessa is a working class girl who has succeeded against the odds in an upper class private school world is part of it. Her chambers colleague Damien is the perp. They have had consensual sex before the rape. They might be in competition at work. And, of course, all these factors – and more – are the bloody scraps Tessa would in other circumstances seize upon to rip apart a witness such as herself.
The writing of Tessa’s interrogation by the defence barrister is shocking. At this point Paul Charlier’s already rich sound design kicks up another level of atmospherics and is virtually a second character. Our hitherto sassy anti-heroine is reduced to confusion, bewilderment and despair. As Tessa has so often done in the past, the eminent silk now questioning her shows the court that it’s his word against hers. And the outcome is so predictable one can only wonder why she went to court. Except, as so many women believe – against all evidence and statistics – she didn’t think it could ever happen to her; in more ways than one.
Prima Facie is a fabulous mix of sly comedy leading to potent drama and gut wrenching verity. And Miller ends with a call to arms delivered by a very different Tessa. It’s a polemical pitch that might be a bit too far for some but then, the law is all about reason and fairness, isn’t it? Justice will be done, won’t it?
Lee Lewis has directed Sheridan Harbridge into the performance of her life to date. The work from both women is sharp, intelligent, witty and relentlessly brilliant. It’s way past time for Harbridge to be recognised for more than being a fine supporting actor and with Lewis’s golden touch, she makes Prima Facie an indelible experience. Recommended without reservation.
NSW Rape Crisis 1800 424 017 (24/7)