Turn to your left, turn to your right. One in three law students won’t make it. Turn to your left, turn to your right. One in three women will be sexually assaulted. Statistics, often difficult to make sense of on the page, come to awful life for Tessa in Suzie Miller’s bracing one-woman show Prima Facie. Having beat the odds to become a brilliant criminal defence lawyer, Tessa’s faith in the law’s ability to deliver justice for rape victims comes tumbling down when she herself is raped.

Sheridan Harbridge in Griffin Theatre Company’s Prima Facie. Photo © Brett Boardman

Winner of the 2018 Griffin Award and now receiving its premiere, Miller’s play is one of passionate moral intelligence. It confronts head-on the shortcomings of a legal system that, as its character decries, did not even recognise marital rape as a crime until relatively recently. Having practised both criminal and human rights law, Miller brings that considerable insight to bear in this gripping look at how women are routinely underserved by a legal system rooted in the concept of innocent until proven guilty. She makes clear that is it the victims of sexual assault who must ultimately shoulder the burden of proof, subject to lines of questioning and media attention that can humiliate, defame and re-traumatise.

Miller also shows how instruments of the law – the lawyers themselves – must make peace with or even embrace tenuous definitions of concepts like truth and fairness. Furthermore, she makes us see how lawyers like Tessa acquire a professional armour that distances themselves from the human cost of their victories, how their dazzling rhetorical flourishes and ingenious questioning tactics can and do compound the pain of victims forced to relive trauma in front of a gallery of strangers.

Sheridan Harbridge in Griffin Theatre Company’s Prima Facie. Photo © Brett Boardman

But perhaps the play’s greatest strength is how carefully, even tenderly, it explores the emotional turmoil of someone who’s found themselves on the other side of the bar. Tessa’s intimate knowledge of the law is shown to be more curse than gift – she knows that something as innocuous as a shower, as tidying up after a night out, as basic and bodily as bad breath, can become tools with which to pick holes in her case. She also knows that being intoxicated, having previously consented to sex with her rapist, even her professional ambitions, can be used to chip away at her ability to present as a reliable witness. Tessa experiences a crisis of faith in a system of which she is an ardent defender, her disappointment further complicated by her working-class roots: the law has been the means by which she has found social mobility and a sense of self she obviously prizes. Avoiding the heavy-handed or reductive, and much of the neatness that narrative necessarily confers, all of these themes and complex questions are handled with an astonishing facility and grace.

Sheridan Harbridge in Griffin Theatre Company’s Prima Facie. Photo © Brett Boardman

The power of Miller’s script finds its match in both performer and production. Sheridan Harbridge is open, raw and technically impressive as Tessa, offering up a perfectly calibrated performance full of emotional truth. It’s one that also registers as deeply generous, almost attentive, as if the actor is extending one hand to the audience at the play’s most bruising moments. She is skilfully directed by Lee Lewis, whose intelligent production handles the play’s subject matter and tonal shifts with supreme finesse. There is plenty of humour here, and a wryness that Harbridge pounces on in her characterisation of Tessa. Finally, in Renée Mulder’s clever design, the set is bare except for a raised platform an office chair. The latter functions as a seat of both power and disempowerment, tracking Tessa as she moves from being a lawyer going in for the kill, to reporting her rape to a charmless police officer, to a victim using the stand to condemn the failures of the legal system.

Early in the play, musing on how it is possible for her to feel good about winning sexual assault cases, Tessa says “I’m trained differently.” By play’s end, she, and the audience, understand that it is the law that must be different.

Prima Facie is at SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross until June 22 and Riverside Theatres, July 3 – 6

If this content has raised any concerns for you, NSW Rape Crisis can be reached 24/7 on 1800 424 017. Other services which may be of assistance include Sexual Assault Counselling Australia on 1800 211 028. You may also consider speaking to a trusted source or engaging your local GP

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