When the rules are made by men

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“Sex is something danced around,” says playwright Suzie Miller and lots of men have told her that her new play “Prima Facie” was a revelation. Arts editor HELEN MUSA reports…

Sheridan Harbridge as the tough criminal lawyer Tessa in “Prima Facie”. Photo: Brett Boardman

“Prima Facie” translates from Latin as “first face” and, in legal terms as “at first view”, but in the hands of playwright and former defence lawyer, Suzie Miller, it has taken on a disturbing double meaning.

For while a person who brings a case against another in a court of law must establish a prima facie case to be heard, in sexual assault cases, the female plaintiff is rarely believed.

Miller, a graduate of the NIDA Playwrights’ Studio with masters degrees in theatre and law and who has a dozen or so plays under her belt, is no longer practising law.

As she emphasises to me when we talk about her coming play, “Prima Facie” staged by Griffin Theatre Company’s Lee Lewis, she’s in a good position to present both sides of the case when it comes to sexual assault.

As a lawyer, she is duty-bound to follow the rules and to win but, as a woman, she has become convinced that it’s hard to achieve justice for women in a system where the rules were made by men.

Playwright and former lawyer Suzie Miller… “Men must learn not to use their strength.” Photo: Brett Boardman

You have only to look at the case of associate justice of the Supreme Court of the US, Brett Kavanaugh, she says, dogged by accusations of sexual misconduct but nonetheless nominated for the position by President Donald Trump.

In the fictional one-woman play, which won the 2018 Griffin Award, Sheridan Harbridge plays tough criminal lawyer Tessa who, after a night out with a colleague goes horribly wrong, suddenly finds herself on the other side of the bar, exposed to the same kind of interrogation to which she’s been subjecting plaintiffs.

Now it’s down to the “her-word-against-his” justice system and the cards are stacked against her as the alleged perpetrator comes across as a “good guy”.

Miller’s play is about as up-to-date as it’s possible to be, but it was written in 2017 before the #MeToo movement and the recent Geoffrey Rush case – she wonders what it would have been like if the young woman at the centre of that case had been believed.

“On the face of it,” is how Miller likes to define the legal term, but she plays with that very term, for when Tessa decides to pursue legal action over non-consensual sex, “on the face of it” people make the assumption that she’s lying.

“The whole issue is defined by male-driven assumptions,” she says and the play has been confronting for apparently decent men in the audience, who have told her they didn’t know it was an issue because of the assumption that the onus is on the woman to say: “It’s not cool”.

“Sex is something danced around,” Miller says, and lots of men have told her the play was a revelation.

Baby-boomers are as familiar with the concept of “date rape” as anyone else, but often dismiss it by saying: “I would’ve just told them to rack off”. But Miller is not convinced, saying the issue was often wallpapered over.

“Many women in the ’60s and ’70s placated men by ‘finishing it off’ if things got a bit out of hand, and only later do they think: ‘I was raped’.”

Once in a court of law, one factor missing from the narrative is the element of sheer terror in women, exacerbated by the certain knowledge that if they complain about it they won’t be believed.

A drunken night leads to heavy petting, but there are different levels of heavy petting she says.

“Suddenly he’s doing something not right, you’re in survival mode and if you complain, people will say: ‘Oh I don’t know if that’s rape’, and you feel so frozen, so threatened,” she says.

“The question is whether a man asks for consent or only assumes consent, we need to make men more responsible. It’s something that everybody could be exposed to and that’s why it’s an issue.”

The play addressed the ambiguities. He’s a lawyer and she’s a lawyer. They’ve had sex once. She doesn’t want to do it again, but he proceeds, he’s got his hand over her mouth and it’s not just “playing around” in a minor way.

“Men must learn not to use their strength,” she says.

Miller wrote “Prima Facie” for lawyers and non-lawyers, and audiences are lapping it up, she says. The setup is a defence lawyer who becomes the plaintiff in a rape case. Towards the end, for five minutes she addresses the audience as jury in a “voir-dire” speech, another legal term where counsel speaks directly to a witness or jury.

“Tessa is in a unique position… she knows they won’t find him guilty, but she can truthfully say: ‘At least I found my voice’.”

“Prima Facie”, The Playhouse, June 26-29. Book at  canberratheatrecentre.com.au

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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