Prima Facie review: Scales of justice weighted against women05/26/2019
Griffin Theatre, May 23
To get a rape conviction, the victim needs to be a one-legged nun.
That was a lawyer’s startling assessment when, as a cub court reporter, I covered my first rape trial. For several days, I’d seen a young woman’s credibility shredded before the accused walked free.
More than 30 years on, that hard-bitten lawyer’s words came back to me watching playwright Suzie Miller’s indictment of the legal system. For depressingly little has changed. The scales of justice remain weighted against women.
And not just in criminal cases. With the Geoffrey Rush defamation case back in the news hours before this play opened, the spotlight is again on how women who speak up – however reluctantly – are treated.
The legal system reflects and reinforces society’s attitudes. And, in that respect, there is little encouragement in a week in which a survey found a third of young men believed many women who claim to have been raped had consensual sex but later had regrets.
The centre of this one-woman play, which won the 2018 Griffin Award, does not initially appear like someone who will question the system. Indeed no one has benefited from it more.
Tessa reckons she’s a thoroughbred. She’s a criminal barrister with a string of impressive wins under her horsehair wig. In a business suit as taut as her legal mind, she’s brash, sassy and she knows how to play by the rules.
She is also funny as she sends up her private school colleagues who fill the upper echelons of the legal profession. But she has not, in fact, come from thoroughbred stock, but the hardscrabble suburbs, with a lone battler mother and a dropkick violent older brother.
While the play does not dwell on her working-class roots – it’s a play with gender not class at its heart – it is a mark of Tessa’s determination that she has made so far. She’s poised to climb higher and join a more prestigious chambers.
In court, Tess lulls witnesses into revealing more than they intended, then moves in for the kill. She’s gleefully skewered cops. And she’s shredded survivors of rape.
“It’s not emotional for me. It’s the game.”
And that game is to tell the best version of her client’s story. No matter that truth goes missing in action.
Tessa’s colleague Damien has caught her eye, and they enjoy a couple of alcohol-fuelled romps before the game changes. Then Tessa is in seated in the witness box.
It is the pivot of the play, yet given what Tessa knows about the system and how it treats women, the surprise is she opts to pursue her case through the courts.
As she does, her confidence is gone, her credibility questioned, her ambition used against her.
We hear only her answers in cross-examination. But it’s not hard to guess the questions.
They’re the ones Tessa has asked from the bar table many times before. The sparsity of the writing here is powerful and the effect is devastating.
My main quibble is that what follows become more of a lecture, its didacticism heavy handed, particularly after such compelling dialogue.
Sheridan Harbridge is superb as Tessa. Combative, controlled and clear-sighted in the first half, her decimation in the second is all the more gut-wrenching in this intense production directed by Lee Lewis.
Renee Mulder’s set uses a high-backed office chair and black walls on which words such as Then and Now signal time shifts. Paul Charlier’s sound design at times pulsates like a raised heartbeat.
Playwright Suzie Miller, who has worked as a lawyer, brings an insider’s understanding to this impassioned plea for long-overdue change.
For the verdict is in: the system is broken.
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