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Prima Facie and its uncomfortable eternal relevance

Jodie Comer's performance in Prima Facie invoked "pure, unadulterated grief", Emily Finan writes for Now Then. 

30 July 2022 at
Prima Facie with Jodie Comer

As I stepped out into the bright Saturday evening of Sheffield city centre, I couldn’t quite piece together that it was the same world as the darkness of the Curzon that I had been in for the past two hours.

“It’s worth it,” the box office attendant had told me as I paid the unexpectedly hefty 20 pound sum for a ticket to the National Theatre Live showing of Prima Facie.

“I heard it’s a hard watch, but a good one!” I replied excitedly. He nodded.

“Mm. I try to ask people how they found it when they leave, but they all come out looking ashen.”

Ashen?

I’m sentimental, but not to an extreme. I often shed a few tears watching films or television, but nothing beyond a quick tear wipe and a sniffle.

I don’t think I was entirely ready for Prima Facie and its fierce, unapologetic bite.

Written by ex-lawyer, now playwright Suzie Miller, it follows Tessa, a trailblazing young barrister. After winning countless sexual-assault defence cases, Tessa is suddenly thrust into the traumatic realisation that the system she has devoted her life to enforcing is exactly what is keeping her from her justice.

It’s chillingly soundtracked by Sheffield’s own Rebecca Lucy Taylor, a.k.a Self Esteem, filled with choral echoes and ambient, troubling strings and piano.

With the entirety of the play being a fast-paced monologue delivered by Jodie Comer, Taylor’s music serves as a thrumming heartbeat threading each scene together, signalling the tense back and forth of a cross examination, to a woozy dance floor or the disoriented, clashing mental landscape of a woman in crisis. The soundtrack also features guttural breaths and animalistic sounds from Taylor, grounding the raw, corporeal focus of the play.

The main anthem of the play is her song ‘I’m Fine’, a fierce feminist outcry against sexual violence and celebrating the renewed autonomy of your body, echoing Tessa’s message of standing up against a system seemingly designed to see women fail.

I walked out of the cinema quickly, the first to leave, head bowed so the box office staff couldn’t see. I stumbled down George Street breathing heavily, shocked at my own emotional reaction.

Ashen?! I felt pure, unadulterated grief.

I cried the most at Jodie Comer’s tearstained face as she took her final bows because I knew, though this story as a whole wasn’t real, so much of it was. According to Prima Facie’s website only 1.3% of rapes are prosecuted. How many other Tessas are out there?

It was a Saturday night and the bus home crawled through the scenes of West Street in a jam, giving me an extended glimpse of ‘out-out’ life. People stared in through the large windows at me. Two men leered and waved and I shrunk away, feeling uncomfortable. I was jangled.

1 in 3. 1 in 3.

Prima Facie’s most poignant desperate message was that one in three women will experience sexual assault.

As we drove past so many groups of women, with their hair piled high, lips glossed, best dresses brought out for another Saturday, I couldn’t help but think how many of them would experience something awful that night.

We are warned as women to be careful. Don’t accept drinks from strangers, keep your drink balanced on the toilet roll dispenser in the loos, don’t leave your friends on your own, don’t respond to catcalls because that’s an invitation and don’t get too drunk on a night out because God knows what might happen to you.

You think, ‘But that will never be me. Because, I’d shout, or scream or run away, wouldn’t I?’

My mother once told me she wasn’t ever worried about me being kidnapped or carried off because she knew I’d put up a fight.

But Tessa thought all of this too.

She’s bewildered as to why she froze up, why she couldn’t scream. Why she, too, like all of the complainants she cross-examined, didn’t explicitly say no. Because sexual assault is not something that can be neatly turned into evidence to be examined in court. The justice system must be changed.

This discussion cannot be complete without a brief comment on the outstanding performance by Comer, effortlessly carrying a nearly 2-hour solo play. She switches between accents, between body language and darts around the stage, bringing a whole cast of unseen characters on stage through a single body.

We watch Tessa shift from boisterous arrogance to confusion and terror, to finally, a fierce and furious advocate.

It is hard to believe there is only one actor present when so many voices and stories seem to be heard on stage.

Prima Facie is a play that is, and always will remain, disgustingly relevant. ‘Once you see, you cannot unsee’ are some of Tessa’s final words on stage.

Once the prolific terror of sexual assault is seen, and the inability of our current court system to bring justice is exposed, it cannot be ignored, and neither can Prima Facie.

Learn more

Prima Facie is on at the Curzon in Sheffield until Thursday 4th August.

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