Theatre

Suzie Miller’s powerful one-woman play Prima Facie explores how sexual assault victims are let down by the legal system.

By Yen-Rong Wong.

Prima Facie

Sheridan Harbridge in Prima Facie.
Credit: Brett Boardman

Content warning: this review contains discussion of sexual assault.

“Look to your left,” says the dean of law, as Tessa (Sheridan Harbridge) attends her first day of law school. “Now look to your right. One of you will not graduate.”

Those next to Tessa think she will be the one to drop out – they have been educated in the private school system and given the best chance at success, while she comes from a more disadvantaged background. But she does graduate. At the beginning of Suzie Miller’s play Prima Facie, Tessa, now a criminal defence barrister at the top of her game, guides us confidently through a cross-examination of a witness.

Miller was a lawyer in a past life, and her depiction of lawyers behind the scenes has a ring of truth. These lawyers work hard and they party just as hard. Tessa is good, and she knows it. She also thinks she knows the law – a legal system based on cold, hard facts, created and largely enforced by men. The courtroom is a battlefield where competing stories are told. Both sides have the same facts; the best story wins.

But what happens when no one believes your story? What happens when you aren’t even in control of your story, when that story is handed over to men and repeatedly and ruthlessly dissected?

A powerful one-person play in a Griffin Theatre and Queensland Theatre co-production directed by Lee Lewis, Prima Facie explores the inadequacy of the legal system when it comes to securing justice for victims of sexual assault, and how an adherence to the “objective truth” intensifies the trauma of victims.

Reneé Mulder’s set is sparse – just a small riser and an office chair, representing the loneliness many women feel while attempting to navigate the intricacies of a system that seems to be working against them. Lighting by Trent Suidgeest and Ryan McDonald provides subtle cues to Tessa’s state of mind at any given time – soft hues when she is comfortable, harsher tones when she feels under duress.

Harbridge delivers a powerful and nuanced performance, combining vulnerability with impeccable comedic timing that demonstrates her ability to bring levity to a sensitive topic without diminishing its importance.

Tessa recounts some tipsy, flirtatious moments with one of her colleagues, Damien. Over the course of a few days, this leads to sex on the couch in his office, then at her apartment. And then Damien rapes her.

Yes, she is drunk at the time, but that shouldn’t matter. It matters, though, for the story that will later be told in court. Damien’s father is a Queen’s counsel, a senior barrister who has demonstrated “outstanding ability”, according to the Australian Bar Association. He has influence, he knows people – and he can control the story.

Tessa decides to press charges, even though she knows the process will be traumatic. She thinks she knows the system. In fact, Tessa herself has cross-examined a victim of sexual assault – a woman named Jenna. At the time, Tessa thought she was being kind. She was gentle and considerate while exposing the “inconsistencies” in Jenna’s story, and in the end she won the case. She did her job well: she told a better story. Jenna’s abuser was found not guilty.

But now this very same system – a system Tessa trusts and in which she has invested her life – will work against her. It takes 763 days for her case to proceed to court. When she gets there, she realises she is surrounded by men – the prosecutor, the defence lawyer, junior counsel, the defendant, the judge, the clerk, even the stenographer. Damien’s high school buddies have come to support him, another sign of the boys’ club standing behind one of their own. It’s her word against his, but he doesn’t have to say anything in his defence while she has to endure the horror of a stranger attempting to discredit her in front of people she barely knows. She very nearly crumples under the pressure.

Prima Facie is an indictment of a system that invites a repeated and intrusive interrogation of a victim’s life, a system that encourages the twisting of facts to fit a certain narrative and that ignores the effects of trauma. It’s an indictment of a society that focuses on telling women how to avoid being raped instead of teaching men not to rape, that is more willing to believe that accusations of rape are false than that they may be true – never mind that the rate of false accusations for rape are on par with those for every other crime.

In this scenario, Tessa still inhabits a place of privilege. She has a support system and can continue her job, albeit on a different floor from Damien. If someone who has everything going for her still can’t obtain justice, what does that mean for those who aren’t so fortunate?

In the same way that the courtroom is populated by men, it is implied that this play is populated by white women – Harbridge is white, and there is nothing to indicate that any of the named characters are not. The legal system is not only shaped by male experiences, it is shaped by white male experiences. Miller comments on gender and class, but the racialisation of the legal system is not addressed. It’s difficult to interrogate such ideas in a one-woman play, and this doesn’t detract from the fact that Prima Facie is a call to arms. Here there is no happy ending: reflecting the experiences of many women in the real world, the jury returns a not guilty verdict.

Lewis hopes this play will be outdated and irrelevant in 10 years’ time. It’s a big ask of a legal system that is so entrenched in its ways, but I am optimistic. I have to be, for the sake of sexual assault victims around the world.

Even in high-profile cases, justice is difficult to come by – Andrea Constand watched her abuser walk free at the beginning of July when his conviction was overturned; Chanel Miller’s rapist served only 90 days in jail; hundreds of girls and young women, including Olympic gold medallists, were assaulted because authorities did not believe accusations that spanned more than a decade.

According to the World Health Organization, one in three women has been a victim of sexual assault. Look to your left. Look to your right. If you are women, one of you has been a victim. 

Prima Facie plays at Queensland Theatre until August 7, HotHouse Theatre, Wodonga from August 11-14, and Geelong Arts Centre from August 18-21.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 31, 2021 as "Legal bias".

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Yen-Rong Wong is a writer of creative nonfiction currently based in Meanjin (Brisbane).