‘Prima Facie’ was unmissable.
It’s rare for an entire theatre to be on its feet within moments of a show ends. It’s even more impressive that this impassioned applause was for a one-act, 100-minute, one-woman show. ‘Prima Facie’ was a captivating indictment of how women fit into the courts of justice created by men. The verdict – the system is broken.
First performed in 2019 in the height of the #MeToo movement, Prima Facie spotlights the realities of sexual assault and the struggles of trying to improve l an inherently flawed patriarchal judicial system. Two years later and in the wake of a series of sexual assault allegations in our country’s highest halls of power, Prima Facie is still sadly just as relevant.
‘Prima Facie’ is a one-woman show told from the perspective of Tess (Sheridan Harbridge), a criminal defence lawyer. At the beginning of the show, Tess is confident and self-assured in her career. While defending sex offenders as a career didn’t sit well, Tess found comfort in the legal system being “innocent until proven guilty”. However, when Tess finds herself a victim of sexual assault, she is forced to experience first-hand the cross-examination, trivialisation and invasive questioning in a trial – where she knows better than most, she is unlikely to be successful. In present-day media, women frequently speak out about monstrosities that have occurred. ‘Prima Facie’ explores the concept of believing people’s truths. How can someone move on with their life and self-worth knowing that the simple act of saying “this happened to me” is open to disbelief, belittlement and shame? How can a fair justice system exist when the only evidence is one person’s and that word will never be enough?
Suzie Miller’s script was a masterclass in finding the entertainment amongst gut-wrenching, truthful storytelling. While ‘Prima Facie’ fleshed out a terrifyingly real scenario, Miller’s script and Harbridge’s delivery also injected a great deal of humour through sass and wit. Tessa’s personality was well developed from the outset. This is even more vital within which a one-woman show so the audience is able to empathise with the character and thus heighten the impact
The set and space of ‘Prima Facie’ were simplistic with a black stage and backdrop to maintain sole focus on Tessa. In the middle of the space was a small raised black square stage with a single office chair in the middle where Tessa spent the majority of the time. Throughout Tessa’s time shifts between the incident and the court case, projections were used to say “then” and “now” against the black backdrop. Lighting by Trent Suidgeest and Ryan McDonald was simple but effective in showing slight shifts in the theatrical space as the set remained static. Artistic choices also heightened dramatic tension through the intensity of lighting. Cooler colours were used in Tessa’s retelling of her traumatic ordeal and warmer colours were used in the present day. Music by Paul Charlier was also intelligently used throughout the show. There was a subtle uneasy motif that was played on and off and was perfectly weaved into the fabric of the narrative without detracting from the performance. Tension was heightened and a gut instinct was elicited that something was just not right.
Sheridan Harbridge could not be faulted in the role of Tessa. Harbridge demonstrated exquisite subtleties and, in conjunction with Lee Lewis’ direction, created a heartfelt and striking performance. Placing aside the subject matter, performing a one-woman show first and foremost is one of the most exposing and intense scenarios for an actor. Harbridge commanded the stage from the moment she stepped out until well after the standing ovation at the end. The show is told from Tessa’s perspective but as Tessa told stories of her interactions with other characters, Harbridge’s voice and physicality shifted in a way that made it seem like there were other characters on the stage with her. Tessa begins the play as a charismatic, cool, calm and collected criminal barrister who is well aware of her success and revels in her achievements. She then retains this determination in her fight for justice. Her final speech in the play was impassioned and poignant, and collectively resonated within the theatre. Another particularly moving moment in Harbridge’s performance was when Tessa is unable to shake the barrister perspective. The character becomes tormented and mentally cross-examines herself trying to find the legal truth within the actual truth, eventually realising that the legal system was not a system made for her to win.
‘Prima Facie’ is a show that sticks with you until well after the final bow. The entire team behind ‘Prima Facie’ deserve the highest recognition for creating a special piece of art that does not come along often and presenting it in a time when it is needed more than ever. Hopefully, in years to come, this text will be considered historic and irrelevant but until that time comes, Queensland Theatre Company has done a commendable job of maintaining the conversation and amplifying women’s voices.
‘Prima Facie’ plays at the Bille Brown Theatre until Saturday, 7 August 2021. Tickets are available at the Queensland Theatre’s website.
Photography by Brett Boardman