State Theatre Company South Australia. The Space Theatre. 2 May 2023
Prima Facie has been wowing audiences around the globe since Griffin Theatre Company produced the world premiere at the SBW Stables Theatre in Darlinghurst, Sydney, in 2019.
In this one-person law lesson performed with aplomb by Caroline Craig, Australian-British playwright Suzie Miller exposes a flaw in the law; why does a woman who is a complainant witness in a sexual assault case have to undergo rigorous and personally invasive investigation, and then in court - perhaps wholly populated with male legals and lawmen - have to relive the experience in excruciating and humilitating detail, sometimes years later, while the usually male defendant can look on in distain and does not have to say a word?
Does this sound familiar? It should because it’s exactly what happened in the recent Lehrmann trial where we read how Brittany Higgins had to sweat it out during police proceedings and again in court. The point is that Prima Facie addresses issues of justice concerning rape and other sexual assault that are relevant right here, right now.
Suzie Miller knows what she’s talking about. She has written previous plays by drawing on her years as a human rights lawyer and children’s rights advocate in New South Wales. She and her plays have won more awards in Britain and Australia than I can possibly list and she has a laundry list of projects underway. Prima Facie has been 5 stars all the way and earned a standing ovation on my viewing on opening night at the State Theatre Company.
Multi-award-winning director David Mealor chooses the actor he wants to work with then he chooses the play. Caroline Craig was in the Class of 99 at NIDA and went on to a stellar career including the role of Sgt Tess Gallagher in Blue Heelers, and later in Underbelly. Crime, cops and courts all the way with this lot!
With Caroline Craig’s entrance onto a stage dressed bare but one chair, attired in a barrister’s wig and gown, she shows us Tessa’s battle face and also her human face. The audience knows already we were in the presence of greatness. Tessa is a defender of men accused of sexual assault and we learn a lot about the law for we have an insider’s information. There is no truth, only law truth. Never ask your client if they actually did it. Your job is to understand the evidence and let the jury decide. We hear how defending barristers – only some barristers, I hope - can justify their ethical stance for the sake of the great game of winning at all costs.
Craig, Miller and Mealor have teamed up to turn our lawyer into a victim. It is fascinating then riveting. Miller takes her time establishing Tessa’s credentials and her nascent relationship with another lawyer with whom she burns the midnight oil in the office. Later, another night, after too much to drink, we witness the harrowing experience of a date rape. All the more awful to be someone you know under trusting circumstances.
Tessa decides to prosecute and she cross-examines her own case with doubt and distress. Mealor keeps the action swift and the emotional rollercoaster running riot without let-up. The changes from home to cab and bedroom to court proceed apace. Tessa has walked through the lawyer’s looking glass and Craig captures all of her hurt, confusion, humiliation, vulnerability, betrayal and sorrow. She has lost trust in her colleagues and the legal system has turned from a game to a struggle for dignity – “It was the first time I was in court without my armour.” Throughout, I felt it was Tessa telling the story and never Caroline Craig.
Does she win or lose? Like I’m going to tell you. But be sure all women in this situation have lost a lot even before the jury returns. Tessa delivers a final spray to the court – a monologue plea of Shakespearean proportions. Bravo for this and all the rest!
When: 28 Apr to 13 May
Where: The Space Theatre