An half of Suzie Miller’s one-woman tour de force, primafacie, the mood changes in an instant. After stumbling and joking around on stage for the first hour, Jodie Comer’s attorney Tessa Ensler seems to shrink, fold over, unsure of how to move or what to say. She was just raped by a colleague. Someone she liked, someone she dreamed of a future with.
Miller once worked regularly with sexual assault survivors after practicing as a human rights criminal defense attorney in her native Australia. She would find that many of the rape statements she made had parallels. “When it was someone the victim knew,” she tells me, “everything was going well until suddenly it wasn’t. It takes their psyche a while to catch up with the fact that they are treading dangerous ground. Then when it happens, they’re like, ‘No, no, no, this can’t happen with this guy I’m dating. I thought about having breakfast with him and starting a relationship.’ Your mind tries to reinterpret the narrative and thinks maybe it’s making a mistake, but by that point it’s already very violent, and then the victim blames themselves for not knowing it was coming, because it was thought the perpetrator was someone it could trust.
The survivors Miller encountered at the time would be inspirational primafacie, about a woman who defends men accused of sexual assault who is then raped herself. It was hailed by critics as “a roaring drama” and “a punch in the gut”. The Independent described Comer’s performance as “steel, agile, remarkable”. The play premiered in Sydney in 2019, starring Australian actor Sheridan Harbridge, and won several major awards there, including the Writers’ Guild Award for Drama. It’s now showing at London’s Harold Pinter Theater and Miller couldn’t be happier it traveled to the UK first. “I’ve never met an actor as hardworking as Jodie,” she says, adding, having grown up watching the BBC, “British actors have characters in their blood.” It also meant the play didn’t need to be adapted as much – Australia’s legal system is modeled after Britain’s, and the conviction rate for sexual assault cases is similarly pathetically low.
The show is Comer’s West End debut and practically her first appearance on stage – she’s only previously been in a play in Scarborough when she was 16. “I think Jodie said, ‘What do I do after that, do I bow? ‘” Miller recalls. A few days before I speak with Miller, I attend the first night of previews, and when the curtains rise to show comers in court attire, their feet on a table in chambers, the audience erupts in cheers and cheers. She hasn’t even done anything, but by the end of the play – a breathless, brutal two hours – there are minutes of standing ovations, lots of chatter and Comer at the front of the stage bowing awkwardly.
There is a sobering moment in the play when Comer asks each viewer to look left and then right. It’s used to bring home a shocking statistic: one in three women experiences physical or sexual violence. As Miller and I finish our conversation, the story of DJ Tim Westwood’s alleged sexual misconduct spanning 25 years ends.
With primafacieMiller wanted to show that rape doesn’t always “grab someone and drag them into the bushes”. “Most of the time,” she says, “it’s someone you know, someone you like.” For prosecution, the court prefers evidence of a fight-or-flight response by the victim, Miller explains. But because the law was written through male glasses, it often doesn’t consider “freeze or friend” when a victim tries to befriend their attacker in order to placate them and survive. “It’s very difficult for the court to calculate,” she says. “The law needs to adapt to that. The system doesn’t hear women’s voices.” She notes that reforms have already taken place – but not enough. “Today it is ridiculous that in the 1990s it was still legal for a husband to rape his wife. Hopefully in the future it will be ridiculous that we expected women to convince us they were raped.”
primafacie‘s run coincided with the release of Anatomy of a Scandal on Netflix, a drama that explores the damage a rape allegation can do to a man’s reputation. The prosecutor on the show, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to exist outside of her relationship with her attacker or the courtroom in which she testifies. Miller wasn’t interested in writing such a story.
“There has been enough talk about men being wrongly accused,” she says. “That’s what the law was formed for – the idea of not wanting to wrongly accuse a man. Well, we also don’t want a woman to have to take to the streets unjustly and think it’s her fault. Sexual assault has long-term effects on some women – serious mental health problems if not believed, and it’s secretive and shameful. I’ve lost a lot of clients to suicide because it’s just overwhelming to think they have to wear this and the feeling they get from the community that it takes two to tango and that they must have done something to invite this .
Comer performs in the play in her Liverpool accent – except when she’s in court. There their vowels become longer and their consonants harder. Miller grew up in a working-class family in Melbourne. She was the first in her family to go to university, and she wanted to show how difficult it can be for someone who isn’t wealthy and well-off to become a lawyer. “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels,” she says. “That’s basically what lower class membership does to people in the legal profession. You have to keep watching and figuring out how to act to fit in. Jodie and I have been to so many court hearings [for research], and we noticed a fabulous QC, a Scottish defense attorney, changing her accent in court. She didn’t even know she was doing it.”
When Miller discussed the piece with a group of lawyers, a defense attorney – who, like Tessa, defends men accused of sexual assault – said she would advise her own niece against bringing a rape case to court. “She said it in front of a whole room full of lawyers,” says Miller. “She said, ‘There’s no way she’s going to win, and it’s going to be traumatizing for her because she’s being interrogated by someone like me.’ I was like, ‘Wow, that’s totally on. It’s horrible, we can’t even rely on the system.” And the legal process actually reduces healing in a way because it doesn’t address the victim’s pain or trauma and the abuser is never told that’s not the way is to behave. And the message to women is, ‘We don’t believe you, so you shouldn’t have bothered’.”
A younger viewer who came to see primafacie in Sydney, Miller said he loved the play but failed to realize that the type of assault Tessa suffers counts as rape. Encounters like this convinced Miller that the solution to this crisis cannot be just legislative reform—society must be educated.
“We have to question people’s assumptions,” she says. “Even women have assumptions. Sometimes women have more because when they sit on a jury and hear a case, they might say, “Oh, that happened to me and I didn’t think it was rape,” because they don’t want to identify themselves as rape victims. A woman might also say, “Well, I didn’t go out and get that drunk.” We should be able to go out, get drunk, party and go home without fear. I don’t know a single woman who isn’t afraid to go home late at night. You’re on alert all the time. When someone walks past you or stands behind you, you are very alert. You’re scared most of the time, even if you don’t like to admit it.”
Many lawyers have seen Miller’s play. They have told her that it was only by watching that they realized that they had simply accepted the flaws in the way sexual assault cases are handled. She told them, “Hey, I’m not a lawyer anymore, it’s your job to fix this.” They listened. Miller recently received a text message from a judge saying, “This is the order of the day now.”
“It’s beyond anything I could have hoped for,” she says. “The job of a writer is simply to point out the paradox of being human, point out the gaps, and point out the ways in which we try to survive with our humanity intact. The rest is for the audience to walk away as members of the community and say, “Well, I don’t want to live in a world like that.” primafacie is not mine anymore It belongs to the audience.”
After studying drama while practicing law, Miller left the bar in 2010 to become a full-time playwright. Since then she has written many plays, but primafacie was always in the back of her mind—when the MeToo movement took off, she knew it was the right time to bring the script to life. She was shocked by the pervasiveness of sexual assault in women’s lives. “Every woman I know has had a near experience, an experience that was really borderline, or an experience where they later realized they hadn’t consented. It’s really endemic. How is it that more than 50 percent of the population is affected or at risk of it so often and not talked about in a way that we expect it to change?”
Prima Facie plays at the Harold Pinter Theater through June 18, 2022
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/prima-facie-suzie-miller-jodie-comer-b2068312.html Prima Face playwright Suzie Miller: “We should be able to go out, get drunk, party and go home without fear”