If you hadn’t noticed, Jodie Comer has been busy recently. With four series of ‘Killing Eve’ blitzed out in the last five years, plus myriad other projects ranging from Disney’s goofy action smash ‘Free Guy’ to Channel 4’s devastating coronavirus care home drama ‘Help’, she’s been too busy to find the time in her whirlwind career to perform on the stage. At 22 she wasn’t treading the boards as a young unknown, but starring in her breakthrough TV role in ‘Doctor Foster’.
But now, aged 29 and with ‘Killing Eve’ all wrapped up, she’s finally had a moment to make her stage debut, and I don’t think the outcome was ever in much doubt. In short, the entire run sold out aeons ago, and she absolutely owns the stage for 100 uninterrupted solo minutes.
It’s a personal triumph somewhat mitigated by the fact that the play she’s chosen is pretty clunky. But ‘Prima Facie’, by Aussie writer Suzie Miller, is impassioned and about an important subject, and let’s be honest, in ‘Killing Eve’ Comer could always spin gold out of material that got pretty ‘mixed’ as the seasons wore on. Here, Miller gives her everything she needs.
Comer is Tessa, a hotshot young defence barrister from a working-class Liverpudlian background. I’d wondered if the famously good-with-accents actor would ‘go Australian’ but Miller has probably wisely tweaked the script, which was a hit Down Under pre-pandemic. Here, Comer speaks in an affectedly sanded-down version of her own Scouse accent, like Tessa has deliberately smoothed out her vowels in the name of blending in with her posher peers.
When we meet the protagonist, she is absolutely in her element. She loves her job passionately, something made manifest by the glee with which she kicks things off by leaping on the table of Miriam Buether’s exaggeratedly huge office set. From there, she describes a recent courtroom victory with all the elan of a football commentator getting giddy at their national team putting ten past the opposition.
She works hard and she plays hard, participating in a boozy chambers culture that sees her embark upon a flirtation with a colleague that gradually turns into a relationship.
Then, she is sexually assaulted, and Justin Martin’s production takes a very different turn as Tessa makes the difficult decision to report her attacker to the police. ‘Prima Facie’ skips forwards two years to the beginning of the trial, which builds to a blazing speech in which Tessa excoriates the brokenness of a legal system in which victims are called upon to provide crystal-clear, detail-heavy evidence in order to secure a conviction.
Comer is magnetic throughout, from her early cockiness to the sickening moment that euphoria curdles into horror and Tessa suddenly finds herself ejected from the certainties that she lived in for so long, on to her ferocious last stand against the system. Miller’s wordy, literal text is heavily based around extremely detailed past-tense descriptions of stuff that happened, but Comer electrifies it, in an intense, impassioned and surprisingly physical way. The set is first Tessa’s playground, and then a sort of prison, and Martin’s production keeps things lively with a few crafty tricks hidden up its sleeve, from a rain machine to a dramatic, beats-and-drones-heavy soundtrack from indie popster Self Esteem.
It’s just a bummer the play’s not better. It’s certainly not terrible, and Miller does a queasily convincing job of portraying the doubt that goes through a victim’s head when being mercilessly cross-examined about an incident that happened years ago, when they were drunk. But for all Comer’s charisma, the text is stodgy, and the drama ponderous and lacking nuance. In particular, it’s baffling how Tessa is earlier shown to enjoy demolishing putative sexual assault victims at the witness stand, reasoning it’s all just part of the game, but never reflects upon this later. As the play has it, it’s reasonable that her personal ordeal alone would be enough to open her mind to the fact that the system is bad, not the things she did while an instrument of that system. I’m absolutely not saying she should blame herself for what happens to her. But it feels like her almost total lack of self-reflection is selling the possibilities of the drama very short.
When she does have her epiphany, the rabble-rousing speech she delivers marks a weirdly Hollywood gear shift for what’s previously been a fairly realist drama – even though there’s no denying the power of having Comer deliver the speech directly to us. Of course, it’s a hugely important subject. But there are recent plays that have dealt with it better: Nina Raine’s ‘Consent’, or Katie Mitchell’s phenomenal adaptation of Rebecca Watson’s ‘Little Scratch’ from last year.
However, it’s understandable that Comer wanted to kick off her stage career with a meaty 100-minute monologue about something she feels passionate about. If all famous actors simply went for the best play possible, we’d be stuck with even more bloody ‘Hamlet’. With ‘Prima Facie’, Jodie Comer had something to prove about herself, and something she wanted to say about the world, and she’s done both.
‘Prima Facie’ will stream in cinemas as part of NT Live on Jul 21.