An extraordinary performance by Sheridan Harbridge, as Tess, a criminal lawyer and survivor of a sexual assault, in Suzie Miller’s searing indictment of the Australian legal system’s handling of sexual assault matters had the audience transfixed on the opening night of Prima Facie in Canberra.
At the top of her game, Tess is smug and confident. She loves to win, even when defending clients accused of sexual assault. To win you just have to follow the rules, and Tess knows the law permits no room for emotion. She knows all the tricks of the trade, and happily demonstrates them at the beginning of the play.
But when she’s raped by a work colleague and decides to press charges, she finds that hard won confidence shattered when forced to describe her experience in minute detail and faced with the realization that her account is unlikely to be believed.
Described in the program notes as “a scientist who evolved into a lawyer who evolved into a playwright”, Suzie Miller certainly knows her law. She’s drawn on her years of experience as a human rights and criminal defence lawyer to craft a hard-hitting, compelling play sizzling with authenticity and insights which compel further discussion.
Director Lee Lewis has chosen to focus on the text with her perfectly paced, stylish production, performed on a spare, elegant setting designed by Renee Mulder, and tightly lit by Trent Suidgeest, in which a shining metal chair on a raised platform is the only prop.
Alone on stage for the full duration of the play, Sheridan Harbridge gives a compelling performance of astonishing range and nuance. As the upwardly mobile Tess, she conjures up the formality and ritual of the courtroom as she confidently demonstrates her courtroom tactics. Her description of her rape is clinical and gut-wrenching, and her depiction of Tess’s shattering realization that her credibility is being questioned is brilliantly portrayed.
Prima Facie is an absorbing, timely play which forces its audience to consider difficult questions and leaves it wrestling with how these questions should be addressed. The animated conversations in the foyer afterwards provided proof positive of how eagerly the audience had accepted this challenge.
The Playhouse – Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit, Canberra
Season: 26 – 29 June 2019
Prima Facie will also be presented at the Riverside Theatres Parramatta: 3 – 6 July 2019.
Image: Sheridan Harbridge in Prima Facie – photo by Brett Boardman Photography
Review: Bill Stephens OAM