Prima Facie was the winner of the 2018 Griffin Award. Penned by lawyer and multi-award-winning Australian playwright Suzie Miller, this one-woman show puts front and centre the treatment of female crime victims by our justice system. It’s the story of a barrister, Tessa, at the top of her game, who suddenly finds herself on the other side of the table when she becomes a victim of sexual assault.

“She is ballsy and when you first meet her, she is in the prime of her glory,” says Sheridan Harbridge, who plays Tessa in Prima Facie’s world premiere production. “She’s really good at what she does and is really enjoying this moment in her life where all the hard work has paid off and she’s on the up-and-up … She’s an incredibly smart woman who really enjoys it. She’s a bit arrogant because she knows she’s good.

“I love sitting in the power of that woman. I absolutely love it.”

Harbridge recalls how she felt when she first read Miller’s play.

“At first, I was really excited,” she says. After reading the first page, I knew that I really wanted to play that role, that I was built for it. This is only the second time in my career that I got that feeling straight away, that it deals with and requires everything I have been working up to.

“As I read on … I had a kind of anxiety about having to walk in this character’s shoes and her experience for quite some time and that it was going to be an emotional load to do her justice. Now that I am performing it, that anxiety is gone, and the play is actually a very muscular and athletic experience that I really enjoy.”

Preparing to take on the role, Harbridge says she spent a lot of time at the courts in the weeks leading up to the show. 

“I went and watched a lot of trials, which was absolutely fascinating,” she says. “I really got a sense of how difficult and strange that world is. What struck me was that there are two different types of people in those rooms – the people that are there every day for their job and seem to have become very desensitised to the other people and stories around them. And the other people there are the ones that are there because they have experienced something – either as a victim, witness or accused. 

“Both groups have very different demeanours and responses to the situation, so I got to see a lot from both sides of a trial and how people behave in those circumstances. Observing lawyers, judges and regular people really informed the basis of my research.”

Sheridan Harbridge in Griffin Theatre Company’s Prima Facie
(Photo by Brett Boardman)

Harbridge talks about recognising that the law isn’t set in stone, that it can – and should – change in line with society.

“[Laws] aren’t sacrosanct or static, they can be adjusted and altered as they are informed by more and more peoples’ experiences,” she says. 

“Suzie also wanted to deal with the fact that these laws were created by men, with very little input from women or women’s experiences, which is a problem because men and women do see our society differently and we move through our society differently. So, why aren’t we looking at some of these laws and re-thinking them? Why do we treat a witness to a violent crime, like sexual assault, in the same way on the stand as we do a witness to a non-violent crime, like a burglary? There seems to be little recognition of the effect of trauma in some of our legal processes and how we treat the human beings involved. And this is really worth questioning because we are not serving the victims the way things are now.”

So, how does Prima Facie attempt to forefront these important issues?

“What is extraordinary about this play is that people do really get a detailed and genuine picture of what it is like for a woman who has to go through an assault, as well as the fallout and the trial,” Harbridge says. “In many ways, for Tessa, the worst part is not the assault, it’s the two years following it where she loses her sense of safety, her sense of self, the system she has dedicated her life to is suddenly looking very shaky now that she is on the other side of it, and that is a very confronting thing for her.

“Suzie has done a remarkable thing with this play, because she takes the audience on a 90-minute journey through these complex issues but does so without losing any of the authenticity or reality. And it truly makes people see that we are not finished here, there are questions that need asking. That is what art can do – it gives us a wonderful hypothetical to explore all of this and to really look at what it makes us feel and then stand back and be able to pull it all apart without disrespecting anyone’s lived experience.”

Directing the world premiere of Prima Facie, which made its critically-acclaimed debut at Griffin Theatre Company’s Stables Theatre in May, is the company’s Artistic Director, Lee Lewis.

“Lee was totally in her element with this show,” says Harbridge. “She had a really good handle on what the show needed. She knew that the writing and the character were so good, she really trusted that the show didn’t need much. She kept everything simple so the play could shine. She filled the room with really smart creatives that all contributed to the emotional needs of the show and to the character’s journey. I felt so supported by Lee and the entire crew.

“Lee also really relished the character of Tessa, like I did. She really just wanted to enjoy that woman and make her fly.”

Harbridge thinks that Prima Facie is a rallying cry.

“Even though, at times, it’s a difficult show to watch, it’s a very energetic call to arms,” she says. “You don’t leave the show feeling despair. People leave feeling, ‘Oh my god, why aren’t we asking these questions?’”

PRIMA FACIE

When:
7.45pm on 6 July 2019
Where: Riverside Theatres – corner of Church and Market Sts, Parramatta
Tickets: Adult $62, Concession $57. Available https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/prima-facie/ or from the Box Office (02) 8839 3399. 
Discounts available for Riverside Theatres’ Members. Transaction fees: phone $4.60, web $3.60 and counter $2.60.

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