By Ash Cottrell
As I exited the luxe, Fairfax Studio Saturday night, to a swarm of well-dressed waiters with trays of champagne, I smiled to myself. After two years (or thereabouts), of unrelenting COVID restrictions putting an unceremonious halt on the Melbourne theatre scene, it’s wonderful to be back with the esteemed company, that was this production.
Last Saturday evening was the opening night of Melbourne Theatre Company’s, Prima Facie, superbly written by Australian-born, Suzie Miller and performed flawlessly by Sheridan Harbridge, who carried this one-woman show for a whole ninety minutes, no interval. Miller’s play is also set for Broadway, with the enigmatic performer, Jodie Comer of the hit TV series, Killing Eve, in the title role. An excellent casting decision, given that Comer is known for her astonishing emotional range – a cornerstone of this storytelling.
Prima Facie is a fast-paced, superbly crafted roller-coaster ride, following the story of defence lawyer, Tessa Ensler who’s bread and butter is defending the accused, some of whom have allegedly committed heinous crimes, many in the realm of sexual harassment. This all turns on its head when she, herself is victim of a rape. The perpetrator, a trusted colleague from her chambers.
As it happened, I had taken a former litigation lawyer as my plus one to opening night and it was no surprise to me that during the standing ovation, he whispered that the legal jargon was spot on. I learnt in my post-play research that the writer’s former life was (among other things), human rights law. Another example of the power of writing what you know.
Appropriately (given the subject matter), this was primarily an all-female key creative team, beautifully directed by, Lee Lewis and under the auspices of the Artistic Director, Anne-Louise Sarks. Other elements that were on-point included the set and costume design -uncomplicated and suiting the journey of the play. Kudos to, Renee Mulder who found a great balance somewhere between beauty and simplicity.
And now a moment for Sheridan Harbridge. It was clear that she has put her heart and soul into this story on stage. The standing ovation that she garnered for her performance, was of no surprise and completely deserved. Her performance ran the full gamut of emotions and she managed to do that with incredible comedic prowess and flare. It was a visceral performance that spoke to the zeitgeist. It was contemporary and bold, simultaneously pushing the envelope. The repartee was nuanced, and I marvelled at Harbridge’s ability to modulate her voice with precision and expertise as she breathed life and colour into the overly articulate and verbose world of the legal system.
As I’m sure the play’s logline would suggest, this is a story about the way the justice system is set up to benefit men while failing to support victims of sexual assault, a sad occurrence, alarmingly insidious in our world. While this play made its debut at Griffin Theatre, Sydney in 2019, the #MeToo movement, along with the evolving nature of the impact of women finding the courage to speak up made this play more powerful and timely. Given the reception, I think I can safely say that the audience was ready for the messaging.
As we filed out, many of us having shed tears during the final act of the play, there was a strong sense of people coming together to enjoy art, but at the same time, getting a very important and long overdue message. One thing was for sure, Tessa’s story, representative of countless other women, was heard.
Prima Facie, a Latin term that refers to first impressions – something which is accepted as fact until proven otherwise, was an excellent title for this play. It also prompted me to think more deeply about a world that interrogates so viciously, the character and account of the accuser, yet seldomly accused.