When actor Sheridan Harbridge was preparing for the world premiere of Prima Facie, she would visit law courts as real trials were playing out. She was fascinated by the theatre of it: “You’re watching lawyers career-climb. They’re performing and it’s bombastic and I saw some things where I nearly stood up and clapped.”
But at one point the reality behind the dramatics became obvious: “I walked into what I didn’t realise was a sentencing. The trial had been done and this boy was on the stand and the prosecutor was going through his character. I sat down and I was in a room of his weeping family. I thought ‘I’m trespassing.’ The stakes were so high.”
This was in 2017, and Harbridge couldn’t have known the sensation that Prima Facie would become. Suzie Miller’s play is a one-woman tour-de-force that explores the two sides of the law that Harbridge witnessed in court. Tessa is a top lawyer who can play a trial like a game of chess, until she finds herself a victim of assault and experiences firsthand the reality of the legal system.
The play was a hit. After its premiere at Griffin Theatre in Sydney it returned for an award-winning Australian tour before a London production, where Tessa was played by Jodie Comer (Killing Eve). Harbridge is back in the show for its Melbourne season at MTC next month.
It’s rare that an actor gets the chance to play the same role twice. Harbridge has performed the role more than 100 times, so she feels an unprecedented sense of technical control. She says that revisiting Tessa multiple times over five years is “both wonderful and awful”.
“In Australia, where we don’t have long seasons, it’s the pleasure of getting to funnel down on each word and sentence with ease and go ‘oh my god, I didn’t think I was capable of this dexterity’. But on the flipside, instead of getting easier, the emotional impact of the show really does colour my own daily life.”
Courtroom dramas are nothing new, but Prima Facie puts a spotlight on the woeful state of sexual assault legislation today. In Australia, only one in 100 such cases result in a conviction. The overwhelming majority are never even reported to police.
Prima Facie asks how, in the case of those figures, we should consider sexual assault to be unlawful. If you arrived in a culture where 99 per cent of murderers got off scot free, wouldn’t you say that its citizens must consider murder an unpleasant but unavoidable fact of life?
Suzie Miller knows her stuff: she was a human rights and criminal defence lawyer before pivoting to theatre. And while Prima Facie is far from a polemic, it effectively drives home that generations of men created the laws that govern us.
‘I was pretty astounded by what lawyers are allowed to say to women in cross-examination.’
Sheridan Harbridge, who stars in the play Prima Facie
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these laws reflect the assumptions and prejudices of the kinds of men who shaped them, rather than the lived experiences of women.
That’s why a sexual assault trial mostly involves a cross-examination of the victim, rather than the accused.
She (it’s usually she) will be forced to relive the painful encounter in detail, and will be interrogated as to what she was wearing, how much she’d been drinking, if her behaviour could be to blame for what followed. And after all this, reports show that she probably won’t be believed.
“I was pretty astounded by what lawyers are allowed to say to women in cross-examination,” says Harbridge. “How there are no rules to that. Suzie had many examples. Lawyers holding up g-strings in court and say ‘you were wearing this, what did you think was going to happen?’ You think ‘this can’t be right’ but there’s no reason why anyone can stop that lawyer asking that question.”
In the five years since its premiere, however, a lot has changed. The #MeToo movement expanded across the globe, including a series of high-profile cases within the Australian arts landscape.
“When we started it in 2017 I remember feeling a despair, where you go ‘oh, this is a play, we’re going to preach to the choir and none of this will ever change’,” says Harbridge. “But in that five years so much has changed. It’s moving very quickly and that’s because of people like Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins … it’s changed the way the public talks about sexual assault.”
The show’s subject matter has a powerful effect on audiences. Occasionally someone will walk out, and Harbridge is reminded of how close to home Tessa’s experiences can be.
The play is both emotionally and physically draining for its performer, too, and over time Harbridge has found that the simple tradition of the curtain call is a crucial way of separating the art from what comes after.
“The ritual of bowing, I know it sounds silly but I never realised how important it was until this show. That’s the most important thing you can do, a ritual. The story is finished and I’m stepping out of it.”
Prima Facie is at Arts Centre Melbourne, February 8 to March 25.
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