By definition, the legal term prima facie means the first impression, accepted as correct until proven otherwise. The theatrical term Prima Facie refers to an exciting one-woman play starring the gifted Jodie Comer (from TV’s Killing Eve) and directed by Justin Martin.
Onstage for over 100 minutes, Comer transforms herself. Portraying a defense barrister, she is a golden girl, almost literally with her shiny, flowing blond hair. She’s at the top of her game, defending her clients, as if it’s a game and the goal is the win. Then she changes to a somber darker semblance of her former self. Victimized by a fellow defense barrister, she remains strong but chastened and wiser.
At the beginning of Suzie Miller’s play, Tessa is celebrating another in her series of victories. Her female colleague notes that Tessa is often chosen to defend men accused of sexual assault because she’s a woman, yet Tessa doesn’t care. Coming from humble beginnings, Tessa competed with more privileged students but became successful.
Comer is a physical actress, using her body as much as her voice. She shows her excitement as she’s questioning her witness and is like a panther waiting to pounce on its prey.
Miriam Buether’s set is simple with two large conference tables that Comer moves around to ‘create’ a barrister’s chambers, a courtroom, and her mother’s home. At times Tessa mounts a table. Surrounding the stage are shelves filled with hundreds of case files
When the unthinkable occurs and Tessa becomes assaulted by a fellow barrister with whom she had a brief relationship, Comer physically changes. She is less expansive. As a victim, Comer appears darker, even her hair, wet from being caught in the rain, appears brown; everything is more subdued than before. She doesn’t physically take up as much room and is more restrained.
Now on the other side of the law, Tessa steps outside herself, analyzing what the defense barrister is doing, examining her own responses, and feeling helpless even though she knows the truth. Sadly, she learns that the truth doesn’t matter, only the law.
Comer’s skill is impressive and her performance has already been recognized. She recently won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Solo Performance. Originating in London, the play was the winner of two Olivier Awards, one for Best New Play and the second for Comer for Best Actress.
The tone of the play changes towards the end as the “jury” is led from the courtroom, but Tessa is permitted to speak. Playwright Miller, a former attorney, shifts gears here, and the play becomes didactic as Tessa describes the plight of female victims. At the end she argues about examining and reforming laws about sexual assault.
The speech breaks the mood slightly and, quite frankly, the insert in the Playbill with its startling and quite disturbing figures is even more powerful. But this break ensures that everyone in the audience hears the message. ( Every 98 seconds someone in the US is sexually assaulted. It is estimated that well over 3.8 million women were raped in the US last year and only 19% of cases were reported.) The numbers are staggering and upsetting.
Comer gives a wonderful breathtakingly moving performance, one in which the character changes dramatically and maybe, just maybe, the audience changes as well.
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