Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 23, 2023
Prima Facie by Suzie Miller. Directed by Justin Martin. Set and costumes designed by Miriam Buether. Lighting designed by Natasha Chivers. Sound designed by Ben and Max Ringham. Music by Rebecca Lucy Taylor. Video by Willie Williams.
"Prima Facie" is a legal term meaning "on the face of it." Indeed, Tessa Ensler (Jodie Comer), a brash and fearless British defense attorney with working-class roots, makes a strong first impression. She works the court room like a sporting arena, and she cross examines the witnesses with acute intellectual agility. She knows how to set mental and logical traps that will trip up her opponents and allow her to score legal points. She has perfected her game to such a degree that she can mask her ruthlessness with a courteous smile and cloak it in professional gentility. For Tessa, trials are a thrilling match of cat and mouse, and in her short career she has become a formidable tiger.
It turns out, many of Tessa's cases involve sexual assault, and while she expresses some sympathy for the women accusers, she puts those thoughts aside. "My job," she explains, "is just to point out the holes in the Prosecution's story. Find a reasonable doubt by cross examining the alleged victim."
Tessa's rationalizations and respect for the law are severely put to the test when she becomes a victim of sexual assault herself. She now understands that the system created by and dominated by men assures that women face a Sisyphean task in receiving justice. As Miller explains in a program note, "The legal system is shaped by the male experience, its cases decided by generations of male judges and its statutes legislated by generations of male politicians, against a backdrop where women were once categorized as the property of their husbands, brothers and fathers. So sexual assault law does not fit the lived experience of women."
Ibsen employed the dramaturgical "discussion" in his plays, and in the final act, the characters forthrightly address the social issue. Miller includes her own version of the discussion in Prima Facie, and in a disquieting and impassioned address, Tessa implicates the audience directly, willing us to action. Audience members are forced to reckon with their own experiences (and according to a program insert that would mean approximately half of the women in attendance) and consider their own complicity in not speaking out against judicial inequity.
Under Justin Martin's direction, Jodie Comer gives a tour-de-force performance. While the other characters in Miller's script are not as fully fleshed out as one would wish, Comer effortlessly gives voice to the family members, law-school comrades, and professional colleagues that people her world. In the first hour of the play, Comer is in constant motion as she parries with her courtroom opponents, seductively flirts and dances with her subsequent assaulter, and moves through academic memories. With a pulsating underscoring provided by Rebecca Lucy Taylor (made vibrant by Ben and Max Ringham's sound design), the play, particularly in the early scenes, provokes a feeling of breathlessness. (Miriam Buether's minimalist set and Natasha Chivers's neon lighting add to whirlwind energy.) Comer is a marvel in conveying a woman with limitless energy and a dogged sense of purpose.
In the last part of the play, though, when Tessa is on the stand and is at one point held captive within the restricting and claustrophobic borders of a video projection (provided by Willie Williams), we can finally catch our breath. That, however, is impossible because the overpowering sense of injustice has sucked all the air out of the space. Although the duration of the play is about 100 minutes, Comer is a completely different person than she was at the beginning. It is both a remarkable and terrifying feat of acting.
As the current (and thrilling) production Ibsen's A Doll's House demonstrates, gender inequality and the law remains a distressingly relevant topic nearly 150 years after Nora first slammed the door. Prima Facie may not be the first play to take on the topic, but it can surely invigorate the conversation.