I have always been drawn to legal dramas within visual media.
From a television show to a feature length film, there is something exciting about the genre that catches my attention. However, I have not yet experienced the topic in a stage production. Melbourne Theatre Company and Griffin Theatre Company have joined forces to present one-woman show, Prima Facie.
Portrayed by Sheridan Harbridge, Tessa Ensler is a defence lawyer that specialises in the field of criminal defence. Tessa has been on a winning streak with her cases and is seemingly undeterred by the string of sexual assault cases that have come her way. Tessa knows the law inside and out and puts her trust in the process every day. However, it is when Tessa finds herself on the other side of the witness stand that she questions the very thing she has spent her life doing.
Prima Facie is essentially Latin for “on the face of it”, and I can see why playwright Suzie Miller chose this phrase as the title of this incredibly powerful piece of theatre. The judicial system is built on the ideal that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. As a criminal defence lawyer herself, Miller firmly believed that this is a basic human right. However, under the surface, this notion is heavily undermined within sexual assault cases, and that it is typically the victim that ends up being the one on trial.
Sheridan Harbridge is an absolute powerhouse as Tessa. Her performance was perfect from the happy and carefree, successful lawyer at the start to the broken yet brave survivor at the end. I was blown away by how she approached the non-linear timeline towards the later parts of play. Whilst the audience is aided by a screen at the rear of the stage that referenced either ‘now’ or ‘then’, they were almost not needed as Harbridge effortlessly switched between the past and the present and I was never lost as to where we were in the story.
The choice of a non-lineal narrative is also a very effective way of conveying the constant horror that all victims of assault endure. And while the subject matter was enough to have me shaking my head in disbelief, it was Harbridge’s eloquent and flawless delivery that really hammered home the message this production is trying to send.
We see it all the time on the news and in print media on how a woman has come forward, sometimes years after the assault, to report it. The narrative from society is often, “Why did she wait so long?” or “Why did she not go to the police right away?”. You would be lying to yourself if you have never thought this, I admittedly most certainly have. Now, thanks to Prima Facie, I know why.
Prima Facie is one of those productions that I am honoured to have been able to experience. It is thought-provoking, heart-breaking, and it drives a tank through the farcical nature of our judicial system. Prima Facie is as educational as it is powerful, and I have learned more about the topic in 90 minutes than I have up until this day. I am so thankful for the opportunity to experience such a masterpiece.
Prima Facie is on now at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne. The limited season is running until Saturday the 25th of March.
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Photography by Brett Boardman.