Beneath the bravado, there’s vulnerability

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Sheridan Harbridge in “Prima Facie”. Photo: Brett Boardman

Theatre / “Prima Facie”, by Suzie Miller. At The Playhouse until June 29. Reviewed by SIMONE PENKETHMAN

IT’S hard to know where to start unpacking a show that’s so rich in resonance, with such perfectly balanced overtones and undertones as “Prima Facie”.

If theatre, or all art, is supposed to enable us to experience the incomprehensible inner worlds of other humans, then this show strikes a chord that keeps ringing long after the applause dies down. 

The audience response was palpable, but people quietly weeping or visibly wincing at the deplorable familiar, couldn’t draw attention away from Sheridan Harbridge’s mesmerising, one-woman performance. “Prima Facie” opens a window into a fraught space that none of us want to enter, the place where sexual assault and the legal system intersect. We all know that the system is a nightmare for the (mostly) women victims but it’s the only system we have.

Playwright Suzie Miller is described in the program as “a scientist who evolved into a lawyer who evolved into a playwright.” 

“Prima Facie” is a story she has wanted to tell since her law school days, before she became a playwright. With the rise of the #MeToo movement, she found the right social environment to bring the story to light. 

It’s a date rape story set in the world of young lawyers. Criminal lawyer, Tess is well used to demolishing the credibility of sexual assault victims. In the opening scenes, we fear and admire her as she struts the stage, boastfully describing her cunning style of cross examination. 

But beneath the bravado, there’s vulnerability. She’s hyper aware of her state school background in the privileged privately educated world of lawyers. 

She remembers her first lecture in law school, where her cohort was told that one in three would not make it through their degree. That same statistic later describes the proportion of women in our community who experience sexual assault. 

Tess knows that even women judges disbelieve sexual assault victims, yet she willingly puts herself forward for judgement in a system that demands a winner and a “second place” rather than truth or justice. This reviewer had to overcome feelings of judgement against the character for even reporting her rape. She works in the system! How can she possibly expect any good to come of this?

It’s a stunning piece of writing, well deserving of its awards and this highly polished professional production. This week, yet another sexual assault allegation was made against the US President by a credible woman. “The New York Times” ran this headline: “‘She’s Not My Type’: Accused Again of Sexual Assault, Trump Resorts to Old Insult”. 

When one of the most powerful men in the world continually describes his accusers as being not attractive enough to rape, we have a global problem. Women’s stories need to be heard and believed. As we watch, “Prima Facie” we walk in Tess’ shoes, we enter that fraught space, confront our own prejudice and come to a firm conviction that we must find a better path to justice.

 

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