Bare stage, one woman, 90 minutes. If that doesn’t sound like the recipe for a gripping night of theatre, you haven’t seen Prima Facie, winner of the 2018 Griffin Award. Writer, director and actor are a fear-inspiring female force times three, come together to tell a tale of terrible truth at just the time when people may finally be prepared to hear it.
In the wake of the #MeToo wave, lawyer-turned-playwright Suzie Miller adds her strong voice to the myriad women making themselves heard and opens a new but related conversation about the necessity for reform in the Australian legal system as it relates to sexual assault cases.
Sheridan Harbridge stars as Tessa, a big ego criminal defense lawyer on a sustained winning streak freeing clients accused of rape, who finds herself on the other side of the bar. Forced out of her comfort zone of professional distance and into the shadows of doubt she’s ruthlessly cast over other women, Tessa realises the human cost of her victories and faces a crisis of faith in her beloved justice system and its’ sanctified rules and processes.
It is fiction, but it is based on the reality lived by one in three women. “Turn to your left, turn to your right. One in three women will be sexually assaulted.” Miller’s experience in the field of criminal and human rights law has incited a courage and determination to challenge down to the very bedrock of fairness and justice. The tenet of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, in cases of sexual assault, places the burden of proof on the victim, subjecting her to further distress and humiliation as she is forced to relive her trauma before a largely male audience who will doubt her account, her character and even her motives for reporting. It is no doubt why so many victims choose to remain silent. Miller expertly gets us to question whether it is time for a change in the system and how this reform could be achieved.
On the close stage in the tiny SBW Stables theatre, Harbridge is at once familiar and impressive. Her sarcastic mimicry of voice, posture and facial expression is spot-on and very funny. Her dynamic technical prowess and vocal fitness, acquired in the demanding arena of musical theatre, are on full show. Her dramatic performance of the darker moments is raw, intimate and oh-so-human. Not to mention her genius memorisation of over an hour and a half of nonstop, rapid-fire monologue, switching between narration and characterisation, male and female, past and present, without barely drawing a breath.
The final line on opening night was met with a near immediate standing ovation, well deserved by the three great women who brought a very female story to a traditionally male stage – Suzie Miller who told it with unembellished, journalistic style language, Lee Lewis who directed it with intelligence and finesse, and Sheridan Harbridge who performed it with emotional truth.
I can only reiterate Lee Lewis’ words: “This play won the 2018 Griffin Award. It would not have won ten years ago because the audience did not want to hear this story then. I hope this story will not win ten years from now because it is redundant. I hope.”
– Alicia Tripp
Alicia Tripp is a seasoned arts and music critic, as a former journalist for the ABC’s Limelight and State of the Arts magazines. She has a degree in Media & Communications, English and Music from the University of Sydney. As a pianist, ballerina and polylinguist, reviewing Sydney’s premiere concerts, operas, ballets and stage shows allows her to combine her passion for music, dance and the written word.
Prima Facie is showing at SBW Stables Theatre until June 22.
Purchase tickets now. The venue is accessible.
Disclaimer: Alicia Tripp was an invited guest of Griffin Theatre