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Prima Facie

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
picture of sheridan harbridge in prima facie
Credit/Brett Boardman

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Sheridan Harbridge is a force of nature in this call-to-action polemic about how the legal system fails victims of sexual assault

Warning: this production contains mature themes, sexual references and descriptions of sexual violence. For detailed information about the production’s content click here.

“Look to your left, and now to your right; one-in-three women are victims of sexual assault.” This sobering fact in the multi-award-winning play Prima Facie – delivered piercingly by the formidable Sheridan Harbridge (The Beast, North by Northwest, The Speechmaker) stunned theatregoers in the Fairfax Studio of Arts Centre Melbourne, where the auditorium was so subdued during her delivery you could have heard a pin drop.

Written by former Australian lawyer-turned-playwright Suzie Miller, Prima Facie is a searing indictment of how the legal system continues to fail victims and survivors of sexual assault. This one-woman show first made waves in 2019 at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney before hitting the West End, where Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer wowed audiences with her critically acclaimed performance as the criminal defence barrister Tessa Ensler. 

Directed by Lee Lewis, this original Australian production has now made its way to Melbourne, and the monodrama continues to shock. Latin for ‘on the face of it’, Prima Facie traces Tessa, a working-class law student who defies the odds to graduate top of her class alongside her silver spoon contemporaries. The first half of the play is turbo-charged by the bloodthirsty Tessa – who specialises in defending men accused of sexual assault – as she battles her way through “the game of law” like a horse-whipping jockey. 

But then, the pendulum swings and Tessa finds herself on the other side of the witness stand as a victim after her colleague sexually assaults her. After the assault, she issues a police report, triggering a series of scene changes between ‘Then’ (where she is cross-examined in the police station) and ‘Now’ (where she is cross-examined in the courtroom). Suddenly, Tessa finds herself thrust into a situation where she tests the law for herself, identifying cracks within a system shaped by men over the centuries. 

She begins to cross-examine herself, and asks hard-hitting questions that leave the whole audience ruminating: does the legal system deserve the faith she placed in it? Or does it silence women further? And how can society, and therefore the law, evolve to protect victims and survivors of sexual violence?

Miller’s insider view of how the law fails to protect these women is an important and timely voice that chimes loudly next to the likes of Nina Raine’s play Consent, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and the recent #MeToo film She Said. Prima Facie joins these productions in being a nuanced study of sexual assault and consent, but the switch from a slick piece of reflective monodrama into a lecture-like polemic for the final epilogue feels a tad overemphatic.

Nevertheless, the play’s potholes are filled by Harbridge’s stellar performance as Tessa. You would think that after performing the same role more than 100 times, the fervour in her performance would wane, but this Tessa is still full of grit. She masterfully shifts across space and time to bring us a series of characters over 90 minutes; you can hardly believe she finds time to come up for air. 

In comparison to the West End production, where there was a curtain of rain, leather chairs, oak tables and floor-to-ceiling case files, the stage design is less striking, opting for fewer bells and whistles. Instead, set designer Renée Mulder’s minimalistic use of a single chair in tandem with a suspenseful score by Paul Charlier and ambient lighting by Trent Suidgeest cast Tessa – and her story – into the spotlight, leaving you hanging on her every word.

Only a meagre 1.5 per cent of sexual violence cases result in a conviction in Australia, and it's clear that, as Tessa states at the end of the play, “something needs to change”. While plays like Prima Facie lack the might to overhaul the judicial system, they are a rallying cry for tipping the scales of justice so that there will come a time when you can look to your right, and to your left, and no longer be a statistic. 

If this article has raised any issues for you, you can call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732, the line is open nationwide 24 hours a day. In Victoria, you can also call the Sexual Assault Crisis Line Victoria between 5pm and 9am on 1800 806 292.

Organised by the Melbourne Theatre Company, Prima Facie is on from Feb 8-Mar 25 at the Arts Centre Melbourne. Book tickets here.

Saffron Swire
Written by
Saffron Swire


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