This woman is Tessa, a defence barrister who is good at her job – excellent, even. To her, law is a blood sport, and she religiously, unequivocally believes in the “legal truth” and her legal instincts, with the actual truth coming in second. But when she finds herself on the other side of a court case, as a sexual assault complainant and lead witness in a criminal trial, this belief system starts to come undone.
For the first half of this State Theatre production, Tessa – played by Caroline Craig – makes the case for “innocent until proven guilty” as a human rights necessity, a tenet that underpins our justice system. She defends defence law and the way it functions, and the audience believes her. At this stage, she is charismatic, charming and seemingly infallible.
This shifts after Tessa is sexually assaulted. She becomes understandably distraught and scattered, yet also conveys an unwavering strength – and as we watch her on trial, we believe her.
Craig (whose previous credits include State Theatre’s Eureka and TV’s Underbelly) carries enormous responsibility in this one-woman show. She is telling the story of a survivor – a story that stretches far and wide – while moving in and out of every other character in the narrative. Her performance is astounding, dynamic, and at times utterly gut-wrenching.
Set and costume designer Kathryn Sproul is right to keep the design simple; the text and performance are powerful enough to fill the space. David Mealor has masterfully directed the evolution of this story by using only the chair that is on stage.
Nic Mollison’s lighting design is striking, gently placing the audience where it needs to be in Tessa’s story. A particularly memorable moment is when Tessa is speaking the indisputable truth about the inequalities of the system: the audience is gently lit and there is visibility throughout the entire space.
Quincy Grant’s tender compositions are woven throughout the journey. Paired with Andrew Howard’s sound design – the beeping of the pedestrian crossing, the hustle and bustle of uni students, the chime of a convenience-store bell, the ticking of a clock – it helps move the audience emotionally to different settings.
Playwright Suzie Miller’s writing isn’t timid. It does not employ extensive symbolism to talk about these difficult topics. It is upfront and didactic. There is an agenda, and when it comes to sexual assault victims and survivors – one in three women, as the play reiterates – perhaps we can no longer afford to be subtle.
At the close of the production, there is a collective exhale. Looking a sexist, cruel system in the face generates that kind of an exhaustion, although, ultimately, it’s incomparable to the exhaustion experienced by survivors and victims.
Prima Facie was first performed in 2019, a product of MeToo. If we look closer to home, similar subject matter has remained in public discourse since, with the advocacy of women like Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame. This is a breathtaking production that is vital to the conversations we need to keep having about our judicial system and truth.
But how many stories does it take? How many testimonies and protests do we need before there is real change? And, undeniably, something does have to change.
State Theatre Company South Australia is presenting Prima Facie in tandem with Every Brilliant Thing (reviewed here) in the Space Theatre until May 13.
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