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'Prima Facie' At Wellington’s Circa Theatre

Prima Facie is a Latin term meaning ‘on the face of it.’ In Australia, the 1.7 million women who have been sexually assaulted rarely receive justice. Instead, their stories are filtered out of the system as they encounter one hurdle after another. Nine out of ten sexual assaults are not reported to the police. Of the the few that are, nine in ten end up with no conviction and ninety-cases out of hundred fail to make it through the legal system.

Prima Facie is an Australian play about the Australian legal system, but its themes remain global. Some references to the Australian legal system differ from the way New Zealand courts proceed. No wigs are worn, except for ceremonial occasions, and since 2021 some changes have been introduced to the laws surrounding sexual assault cases in New Zealand. And a reference to Vegemite has been changed to Marmite, to the delight of knowing Kiwi audiences.

Turning the costs of law into a different kind of stage, this gripping one-woman show was first produced by the Griffin Theatre Company in 2019 at the SBW Stables Theatre. London’s West End production, where the solo role was played by Killing Eve star Jodie Comer, won this year’s Olivier Award for best new play. It subsequently sold out throughout Australia and will soon land on Broadway.

With original music provided by Briar Prastiti (composer in residence at Lilburn House) and a minimalist set and costume design by Ian Harman, this stunning Circa production is expertly directed by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford. It stars the extremely versatile Mel Dodge, who earned a standing ovation on opening night for her ninety-minute performance as the state-school educated criminal defence lawyer Tessa Ensler who specialises in defending men accused of sexual assault.

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Ensler thrives by treating each performance as a game she desperately wants to win. Sometimes sexy when she lets her hair down socially, Ensler is often sharply strident and always self-assured as she saunters into court primed for combat with her leather satchel slung defiantly across her shoulder. She is at the top of her game and loving it - defending, cross-examining, and manipulating the rules of law in order to win.

As Ensler explains, all the players in the game (defence, prosecution, and police) “have a role to play. We each tell the story. And the jury and judge decide which version of the story they believe. And I fire four questions like bullets … it’s not emotional for me … It’s the game, the game of law. I submit that there’s no case to answer … and it’s all over. We never call it losing, we call it ‘coming second.’ Today the Crown prosecutor came second.”

Ensler ruthlessly cross-examines a sexual assault victim at Cambridge Law School surrounded by private school students, drinks excessively with her workmates, and tragically experiences her own violation - which takes 782 days “to get to the dizzy, as we all call it” (the district court). When the tables are turned, she fins herself at the mercy of the very system to which she has dedicated her professional career. Ambiguous shadows of doubt are illuminated, making the audience question exactly who is best served by our legal system.

Writer Suzie Miller says, “I offer this play to all women and to those who want to be part of the conversation as a small token of my own part in the greater conversation. Our daughters and their daughters need to know that sexual assault is not a silent shame that victim-survivors must carry and that the communities and systems of this globe need to be interrogated and modernised with that in mind.”

The National Theatre’s live version of Prima Facie is now mandatory viewing for high court judges in Northern Ireland before they sit on the bench, with plans to introduce it to more judges. After seeing the play, members of the Women Barristers of the Old Bailey set up a movement call Tessa - Examination of Sexual Assault.

Here in Aotearoa, lawyers get two Continuing Development points if they see the production, including a Q&A with the director and her creative team. Rutherford says “It feels significant that artists, creatives, thinkers, visionaries, and storytellers, who often struggle to make a living wage, will be educating our lawmakers and those who uphold the law.”

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