Please note: This review – like the production itself – discusses rape, sexual assault and the handling of sexual assault cases in a court setting. Please take care when reading and click off this article if these subjects are triggering to you.
What happens when a defence barrister has to go through the very same legal system she is paid to uphold? In a powerhouse of a West End debut, Killing Eve star Jodie Comer explores that question at remarkable, unrelenting speed – with a flood of emotion and forensic depth and detail.
While the actress is known for her masterful handling of accents, here she performs in her natural Liverpudlian, and it’s all the better for it. It’s necessary for a play about working class Tessa from Liverpool and her rise through the ranks of the legal profession, sure, but it’s raw, authentic and unrestrained. She is self-assured, confident and even playful in her honesty and knowledge of the trade – an endearing attitude complemented in Justin Martin’s tight and rhythmic direction. Tessa towers atop the wooden desks of her office to begin with, in her element as she cross-examines a witness. So when her being sexually assaulted knocks her to the ground, and thus she becomes the client, the result is deeply affecting.
Not least because a lot of Comer’s talent in Prima Facie, and in playwright’s Suzie Miller’s erudite and accessible script, concerns what isn’t seen or heard. There’s the exaggerated handshake of Tessa’s client successfully defended, and the barrage of questions in her own cross-examination – the answers to which are overwhelming in their velocity. The most striking incident, however, is the scrutiny she applies to her own testimony and experience, rarely settling on one emotion before another one follows suit, because when you know how every single word and every single action is deconstructed in the courtroom, and how that will be done, the self-doubt and self-gaslighting is suffocating.
Fans of The Secret Barrister‘s work will certainly connect with the solo play’s underlying criticism of a broken legal system, specifically – in this instance – around its treatment of victims and survivors of sexual assault. We get that in a visceral concluding monologue which couldn’t be more perfectly potent for Comer’s debut. “In sexual assault trials can we keep using it [consistency] as the litmus test of credibility,” she asks, referring to the fact that the recounting by victims and survivors of the offence isn’t always linear – much like the narrative in Miller’s play itself.
But we know, by the end of the play, why that’s the case. The sheer exhaustion which comes after going through a humiliating legal process. Many of us will have been alert to recent key messages around rape and sexual assault which are highlighted by women’s rights campaigners and victim support charities: believing women, the low number of sexual assault convictions in the UK, and so on. And when the definition of truth continues to be examined in our post-truth era, exploring it in a legal context against the backdrop of the patriarchy could not be more significant.
Yet here it is personified, to a tragic – and actually, more enraging – extent. An intelligent instance of the story coming full circle with its beginning only compounds the emotions felt as an audience member. Meanwhile, a few surprises in Miriam Buether’s expansive set, soundtracked by Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s gospel choir score, offers a more cinematic touch. It makes a standing ovation inevitable, as while the justice system still fails to protect and serve women like Tessa in such distressing cases, such an arresting and captivating stage performance from Comer means we, as an audience, believe her story.
How we wish society and the institutions would follow.
Prima Facie is now playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 June.
The production is sold out, except for a limited number of standing tickets available before every performance.
30 ‘pay what you can’ seats are released every Wednesday for every show the following week, and the show will be broadcast to cinemas through National Theatre Live on 21 July.
Production Images: Helen Murray.