Sunday, 22 January 2023

Stage-to-screen review: Prima Facie

When I caught Covid last spring and had to miss a number of shows I'd booked, some felt more of a wrench than others; Suzie Miller's Prima Facie, named after a legal procedure to determine whether a case has enough standing to go to court, was very well-received but also counted as one of 2022's big theatrical events, thanks to Jodie Comer making her West End debut in the monologue. I did at least figure it would eventually turn up on NTatHome since I knew it had been screened to cinemas, but thought it might take a couple of years since a Broadway run is coming up. In fact it's streaming for a limited time a bit earlier than expected, albeit not in all territories so it won't impact on live ticket sales. Comer plays Tessa, a young barrister whom we first meet on cocky form, bragging about the way she tricks witnesses into incriminating themselves on the stand.

Tessa rather embraces the reputation barristers have for brashness and arrogance, as she tells us about her impressive record as a defence counsel, with a particularly high percentage of her cases involving sexual assault. She's happy to accept the official line that cases are assigned more or less at random, rather than the suggestion that a young woman is chosen to defend accused rapists because of how it might improve the optics and help them get off.

Tessa's story bounces between her present day work and the way she overcame the odds to get there, as a working-class student out of place among her privately-educated Cambridge peers, but things take an abrupt turn when she starts a relationship with a QC in her chambers: After having consensual sex a couple of times, he proceeds to rape her while she's drunk and sick. She reports it to the police within hours, but it takes more than two years to make it to court, at which point she's subjected to the same blandly dehumanising questioning that casts doubt over everything she says.

There's a strong emotional turn in the story and in Comer's performance: There's something stereotypically masculine about the combative way she treats witnesses in the first half; notably, her opening speech where she proudly tells us how she manipulates witnesses into destroying their own case is devoid of details, so it's only later we learn she could well have been questioning and undermining a woman describing her own assault. She either hides behind, or has genuine confidence in, the legal system's insistence on cold hard facts, which put the onus on the alleged victim to prove their case, meaning inconsistencies can easily be picked apart. Once on the other side of the questioning and facing the impossibility of winning, she understands that the system needs to change and acknowledge the way emotions affect a story.

Justin Martin's production uses flashes of light (Natasha Chivers,) sound (Ben and Max Ringham) and music (Rebecca Lucy Taylor) to punctuate the violent mood shifts Tessa is put through, and Miriam Buether's set surrounds her with case files, presumably of other cases of women who didn't find justice. The play itself is for the most part strong, although a bit clumsy when it makes its final polemic points - this filmed version even pans out to show the audience in the Pinter Theatre when Comer is essentially making a speech to them. I also thought it could have spent a bit more time mining how Tessa would confront her own previous collusion in tearing apart women's testimonies. But Comer gives a powerful performance - famous for her many accents, she gives Tessa a touch of an affected brash, posh voice in her working life, that slips into her native Liverpudlian when with her family or under pressure. The only thing I didn't love is that there's not a lot of variety of pitch in her voice, something that may be more apparent at home than in a theatre, and it did start to grate on me. But other than that she deserves the plaudits, and the play deals with urgent subjects, if not always in the most elegant way.

Prima Facie by Suzie Miller is available to stream until the 8th of March via NTatHome (excluding the US) and booking from the 11th of April to the 18th of June at the John Golden Theatre, New York.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

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