By: Samuel L. Leiter
April 26, 2023: It’s hard to think of any other Broadway play as au courant as Prima Facie, by British playwright Suzie Miller. I saw this gripping solo drama—whose title means “legally sufficient to establish a fact or a case unless disproved,” or, as Ms. Miller (herself a human rights and criminal defense lawyer) puts it more simply, “on the face of it”—just hours after the opening statements in E. Jean Carrol’s lawsuit against Donald Trump for rape and defamation. In fact, a news report on the trial’s second day notes that the judge reprimanded the former president’s lawyer by insisting that, “on the face of it,” his trying to skirt a statement of Trump’s “seems entirely inappropriate.”
Prima Facie, which premiered at Sydney, Australia’s Griffin Theatre in 2019 and opened on the West End in 2021,is an in-your-face exploration of one (fictional) woman’s battle for justice—inspired by the #MeToo movement—in the wake of her rape, presented in a remarkable performance starring the exciting young British actress Jodie Comer (Villanelle, the ruthless assassin on TV’s “Killing Eve”).
Prima Facie’s unique angle is not so much the case itself, dramatic as it is, but the fact that Tessa Ensler (her name an homage to activist/writer Eve Ensler), the victim, is herself a brilliant defense lawyer, and the assailant is another lawyer, her colleague, Julian. The play is an unabashed polemic advocating for justice for women who have been raped. One side of a folded Playbill insert states, “On the face of it something has to change,” the other side being filled with data about the ubiquity of sexual assault in the U.S. Late in the play, Tessa tells us that one in three women are subject to such experiences, asking us to look to our left and right to immediately grasp the everyday proximity of the crisis. We also learn from her (and the insert) how infrequently the perpetrators are either arrested or punished.
Ms. Miller dramatizes this material by presenting Tessa as an attractive London barrister in her 30s who comes from a working class background. The British class system is implicated in her determination, during her university days at Cambridge, to succeed in an environment where most of her classmates are from privileged backgrounds. Class differences are clearly represented, as usual, by differences in accent, ranging from plebeian to posh. Tessa uses them to introduce a multiplicity of characters, friends, family, transient (a cabbie), and judicial. Tessa has turned down offers from top law firms, determined to protect underdog defendants caught up in the unfair legal system.
At first we receive extensive exposition of her background and pride in the legal strategies she has employed to win case after case. She views each case like a game, enjoying the thrill of success. She also offers ethical questions for us to consider regarding a defense attorney’s responsibility to defend their client via all appropriate legal means without being preoccupied with issues of guilt and innocence. Soon, her time-honored principles are put to the test when she herself is placed on the witness stand.
The rape of which Tessa accuses Julian takes place during a date when the pair, having imbibed freely all night, are back at his place and lovemaking has commenced. But when the alcohol makes Tessa violently sick, and she begins to vomit continuously, Julian continues his advances while Tessa tries to fend him off, telling him “no,” which he ignores. She flees and files a complaint; only after 782 days, does the case come to trial.
The case is not open and shut, of course, and the ambiguities of what transpired are allowed to play out. Although the situations are different, it’s impossible not to watch the trial without thinking of the surprisingly similar ambiguities in the Carroll v. Trump case. Ms. Miller argues that, because of the intricacies of the law, especially regarding the patriarchy-shaped issue of “consent,” rapists are too frequently able to avoid their due. She notes in her script, “Research has shown that women giving evidence in sexual assault cases are just not believed! Even by other women!”
Much of the time we’re in a generic lawyer’s chambers (designed by Miriam Buether and expertly lit by Natasha Chivers), large wooden table/desks placed before towering walls of legal files. The furniture is moved by Tessa into different configurations as needed to suggest other places, with a good deal of the action using the tables as a platform. There’s also an extended taxi sequence played in pouring rain, during which Ms. Comer gets completely soaked. During it, she wears a lovely green dress (Ms. Buether, again, is the designer), but usually she’s dressed in traditional barrister’s robes, including a white wig, or black slacks and a white blouse.
Only one element in Jodie Comer’s remarkable performance gave me pause, that being the high impact attack with which, under Justin Martin’s dynamic direction, she starts the play. Given this fast-talking, high-energy opening, I wondered how she could build on it to develop her character and keep us involved in the narrative without going too far too fast. While I’d have preferred a more subtle, nuanced early approach, it can’t be denied that she manages to bring so many colors to her hour and 40-minute presentation that you almost, if not quite, forget those first minutes.
Racing through this complex piece, shifting distinctly from role to role without ever missing a beat, Ms. Comer uses her lithe body like a trained dancer, underlining each passing feeling, never looking awkward or uncomfortable, even when retching into an imagined toilet. Similarly revelatory of her sensitive artistry is a sequence where we watch each reaction flit with convincing honesty across her exquisite face, seen in close up on a video.
With this single role, in which she assumes dozens of hues—sardonic, sexy, comical, enraged, triumphant, joyous, tragic, fiery, rebellious, and so forth—all of it entwined with an extraordinary physical, facial, and vocal expressivity, Ms. Comer leaps into the front ranks of leading British actresses. Making this leap even more unforgettable is the astonishing fact that Prima Facie represents her stage debut, her previous work having been limited to films and TV.
Welcome to the theatre, Jodie Comer. Please return to give us more.
Prima Facie *****
John Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th St., NYC
Through June 18
Prima Facie extends for Two Weeks only through July 2, due to overwhelming response.
Photography: Bronwen Shar