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Prima Facie

Black Swan offers another first glance
Black Swan Theatre
by
ABR Arts 08 July 2024

Prima Facie

Black Swan offers another first glance
Black Swan Theatre
by
ABR Arts 08 July 2024
Sophia Forrest as Tessa Ensler (photograph by Daniel J. Grant)
Sophia Forrest as Tessa Ensler (photograph by Daniel J. Grant)

Suzie Miller’s Prima Facie continues its triumphant procession at home and abroad with Black Swan State Theatre’s production in Perth, under the direction of Kate Champion. A hit at its première at Sydney’s Griffin Theatre in 2019 and in post-Covid seasons in Melbourne, Broadway, and the West End (winning the 2023 Olivier Award for Best New Play), not to mention in South Asia and Northern Europe, it now arrives in Perth, where Miller received her first mainstage production (of Dust) in 2014.

A single actor – Sophia Forrest – performs a good two dozen roles, rapidly donning personae ranging from classmates and colleagues to hostile witnesses and personal antagonists. These characters orbit around Tessa Ensler, a young barrister who overcomes humble beginnings to forge a sparkling career from brains, ambition, and sheer oomph. Early scenes in particular showcase Forrest’s ability to convey gender, class, and age by means of voice, posture, and gesture. Forrest is an engaging physical actor, with the rapid shapeshifting of early phases ceding to the tautness of shame and rage as the story narrows to its core. Yet, as a whole, the production struggles to convince theatrically: its politics are so overt, unrelenting, and uncontested that suspense or intrigue never develop.

The first third of the show is a pacy Bildungsroman as Tessa sketches her family and segues into the thrust and parry of criminal cross-examination. Courtroom set pieces are a mainstay of stage and screen. This one is greatly enlivened by Tessa’s feints and scheming, but also by withholding of the contents of the legal matter. This turns the conventional logic of the law setting on its head, since fictional courtrooms ordinarily rely on revelation, deduction, and confrontation. Such devices are the play’s cleverest application of Miller’s lawyerly past: rather than case minutiae leading us to an ‘aha’ moment, we are immured in the barrister’s frenzied mind of strategy and theatrics, as she relishes her star turn in what she terms the ‘game of law’. If, as a result, some victims will not see their wrongs redressed, that is no concern of Tessa’s – her job is to present the best case possible for each client, usually by ripping holes in witness testimony.

Sophia Forrest as Tessa Ensler photograph by Daniel J GrantSophia Forrest as Tessa Ensler (photograph by Daniel J. Grant)

Then comes a tipsy fling with a male colleague, which suddenly and brutally turns into rape. Miller shows her dramatic cards: the play is about the legal system’s gross inability to cope with sexual assault. Grimly, the story could hardly be more topical. In the years since the play was written, the murk of sexual assault cases has been a constant of Australian political and entertainment scenes, and few if any cases have resulted in conviction. As a political statement, the play is unimpeachable; as theatre this production begins to deflate. Left in no doubt about the nature of the assault, the audience has no sleuthing to undertake or dramatic revelation to anticipate. Nor have they any reason to believe that justice might be served, since Tessa knows best of all that the odds are stacked against her; up to now she has been part of the stacking.

This means that the play must rely on its heavy irony to keep the audience engaged. The hard-nosed defence barrister has become the victim: usually the cross-examiner, now she is cross-examined. We see her waver but never crumble, and we empathise as she second-guesses her career and falls back on the support of her rough-edged but warm-hearted mother (plucked, like Tessa’s brothers, off the rack of stock characters). Neither the characters nor the situation seems capable of change. In due course, the inevitable transpires. Perhaps the right productions generate from these materials a fearful glimpse of the wheels of destiny, or a feminist Beckettian horror of the void, but here the play boils down to a series of statistics and slogans, none of them seriously in dispute. It is a matter of record that rapes mostly go unreported, that reported cases mostly don’t go to prosecution, and that most prosecutions don’t result in a conviction. The toll on victims from the process is high in terms of emotion and reputation, and a formidable deterrent to reporting. But these are things one can and should have read in the paper, and this production doesn’t really seem to offer new illumination or to take any theatrical risk: it is, in essence, a case study.

Bruce McKinven’s mostly bare stage, with cubes and chairs for all-purpose props, provides a suitably clean space, with an expressionistic grove of menacing columns for the oppressive courtroom. Video projections by Jessica Russell, mostly close-ups of Forrest’s anguished face, are sparingly but effectively deployed, while Lynn Ferguson’s costumes and Peter Young’s lighting help make legible transitions of setting with the barest of materials. The music instructed the audience about the correct emotional response to every given scene, one of several features that made the production feel like a television adaptation. Here and elsewhere, the screen seemed a secret inspiration, and in that case Prima Facie will soon be going home: Cynthia Erivo is to star in the upcoming film. Even the sceptic must note that the play is making political ripples on a scale beyond Australian theatre’s usual sphere, and that warrants huge respect.

The finale’s call to action, in which Tessa for all intents and purposes breaks the fourth wall and asserts that ‘something has to change’, is heartfelt yet theatrically unsatisfying – by this point there are no stakes within the fictional world. ‘Prima facie’, a Latin legal expression, meaning ‘on the face of it’ or ‘at first glance’, furnishes the play’s title, presumably to suggest that something – the law’s promise of protection perhaps – is not as it seems. But it can also suggest that the treatment of a given case is superficial.


 

Prima Facie (Black Swan Theatre Company) continues at the Heath Ledger Theatre until 21 July 2024. Performance attended: 4 July.

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