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Photograph: Griffin Theatre/Brett Boardman | Sheridan Harbridge in Prima Facie

Australia's legal system is on trial in this new play about sexual assault

Playwright and former lawyer Suzie Miller is uniquely placed to dramatise how the system fails women

Written by
Cassie Tongue

If anyone was going to be able to write the definitive play on the way the Australian legal system fails women, it’s Suzie Miller. An award-winning playwright who used to practise criminal law, she’s uniquely placed to understand – and dramatise – all the ways women suffer when they report sexual harassment, assault and violence.

And is there a better time for a play tackling these issues right now, when violence against women is in the spotlight, and when victims of assault by high-profile entertainers are more visible than ever?

Prima Facie, which won the Griffin Award for new Australian playwriting last year, is Miller’s call to arms to the legal sector. A one-woman show, it follows Tessa, a criminal lawyer who loves the law and loves winning. But that love turns sour when she becomes a victim herself. Tessa knows the system front to back; she knows that women rarely win these kind of cases. But she’s still compelled to speak up.

Over the play’s 90 minutes, Tessa will experience the law from the other side of the bar. It’s rough going and serious, but it isn’t a lecture, and like any human experience, it’s got humour and heart, the things that make a crisis easier to bear.

Playwright Suzie Miller. Photograph: Brett Boardman.

Miller says she didn’t intend her play to make it to stages at the same time as two high-profile theatrical figures are fighting allegations of inappropriate conduct in the courts, but that she’s glad the play is landing when the public (and the theatre industry) might just be ready to have a real conversation about the issues – and when a wave of women are making themselves heard.

“We will not tolerate any more the way that women are treated as second-class citizens,” Miller says. “Not good enough, mates. Surely in 2019 we can actually decide that a women’s lived experience is different to men’s and men don’t get to legislate and decide everything on our behalf.”

It’s also the first time that Miller has ever worked with an all-female creative team, and she thinks highly publicised allegations of assault in the entertainment industry have helped her play make it onstage.

“When I first left the law to become a playwright, I had a first go at a play like this. But because it was such a woman’s story, it really was sidelined by so many different artistic directors, even though they loved the writing. And I think they thought no one was going to be interested in the story of women’s sexual assault. Then the #MeToo movement garnered this real insight into the fact that there’s a whole other way of seeing the world.

“All of a sudden this wave arrived that allowed us to say here we are, we’re not going to sit quietly anymore. And Lee [Lewis, director of Prima Facie and artistic director of Griffin Theatre Co] stands apart as a cultural leader who always championed women writers.”

Sheridan Harbridge in rehearsals. Photograph: Brett Boardman.

Sheridan Harbridge, who recently performed in Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, takes on the role of Tessa. Partway through our interview, as she describes intimate rehearsals, the trauma of victims, and her big workload tackling the play’s trajectory through the upsetting process of pressing charges for sexual assault, I blurt: “Are you OK?” It’s a lot to take on.

But Harbridge takes it all seriously. She’s taking care of herself (“a lot of yoga”) and is working closely and carefully with director Lee Lewis, a champion of safe workplaces in Australian theatre. She also says that it’s not just her she has to take care of, but the audience.

“Knowing the statistics, we will be doing every performance knowing one in three of those women have been touched in some way by sexual assault. My performance and the production is about honouring and respecting their experiences, and making sure we can inspire audiences to action in some way.”

Action is a big part of the Prima Facie equation. Harbridge says there’s a message of hope in the play, and Miller says it was important to her that the play was a call to action to the legal system which, she says, really does want to be fair.

“The legal system does respond to the community. It’s made by us, it’s not a god-given thing that’s fallen out of the sky. So we as a community have to say this isn’t good enough anymore. We want reform, and we want it for women now.”

Check out the best theatre in Sydney this month and our tips for scoring theatrical bargains, including $20 tickets to Griffin shows.

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