By Suzie Miller
Directed by Justin Martin
Harold Pinter Theatre – until 18 June 2022
The term ‘prima facie’ means “accepted as correct until proven otherwise” and it’s a fitting title for this harrowing but galvanising monologue in which an incandescent Jodie Comer portrays an ambitious criminal barrister whose life is transformed when she is the victim of sexual assault.
When we first encounter Tessa, she’s supremely confident in her stellar abilities not just in the court room but in life generally, having taken the Oxbridge route out of a working class background, and revelling in the fact that she’s one of three graduates who statistically forge a career in law (the others fall by the wayside). She’s funny, cocky, likeable, she swaggers, shaking her blonde mane like a lioness…..there is a troubling downside though and that is a willingness to discredit a rape victim’s story in order to win a case, her reasoning being that a stronger defence lawyer would have prevented this from happening. To say that this assertion comes back to haunt her is an understatement. Author Suzie Miller was a lawyer in Australia (the play won awards when it premiered there, with a different lead actress, in 2019) so understands both the mechanics of the legal system, and the inherent theatricality of the court room performance.
The script has been seamlessly anglicised (Tessa now hails from Liverpool, as does Comer, and works in chambers in London) and is an accomplished piece of storytelling. It does almost abandon any attempt at coherent drama by the end, as Tessa becomes less a character in her own right and more an understandably outraged mouthpiece at the gender inequalities within the legal system, wondering aloud if female victims of sex crimes can ever receive truly impartial justice in a set-up that sometimes seems exclusively set up to protect the interest of men. Director Justin Martin raises the house lights at this point, as though to indict us all, and while it is undeniably powerful, that’s largely because of Comer’s transfixing delivery.
The earlier sections of Miller’s script work better from a theatrical point-of-view, drawing a witty, vivid picture of successful urban young lives contrasting with the hardscrabble existence from which Tess hails. Martin’s staging – played out on Miriam Buether’s sombre setting of heavy wooden desks and towering, casefile filled bookshelves that miraculously disappear – is dynamic, leavened by flashes of light and the ongoing thrum of music and sound ranging from exciting to increasingly oppressive (Rebecca Lucy Taylor – composer, Ben & Max Ringham – sound design). All of this theatrical artifice throws the starkness of the second part – and the brokenness of Tessa herself following the sexual assault, which is described in uncompromising but never exploitative detail – into a sharp relief. Despite the flaws, it is heartening to see accessible popular writing that takes on a very important subject without ever one trivialising it. The night I saw it, the audience were breathing as one.
It’s a tremendous piece of theatre, explosively angry and richly detailed. The big news though, and why tickets sold out ahead of even the first preview, is the West End debut of Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer. She is utterly magnificent, not so much acting the script as living it, morphing with complete conviction and precision into various figures in Tessa’s life – her straightforward Mum, work colleagues ranging from the suave to the flakey, a combative then kindly cab driver – she hits not a single false note. Her transformation from strong, capable, driven young barrister to a woman so bowed that she can barely put one foot in front of another, to a fascinating, flawed combination of the two by the end, is literally breathtaking. There is a section, while making a police statement, that she delivers directly to camera as it then gets projected to the back wall of the set, and the look in her eyes, the facial tics, the clenched mouth….it’s unforgettable. She’s unforgettable.