BY Rhoda Feng in Opinion | 04 MAY 23

‘Prima Facie’ Puts the Law on Trial

New to Broadway, Emmy award-winning actor Jodie Comer plays a barrister who struggles to reconcile the letter of the law with her own sexual harassment

BY Rhoda Feng in Opinion | 04 MAY 23

In a lawyer’s chambers expensively appointed with the accoutrements of her profession, a bewigged barrister holds forth on a recent victory at court. Surrounding her along three walls are shelves upon shelves of white binders; from a distance, they resemble white outs or redactions. These heavy-duty files contain paperwork for various cases; the barrister will consult them periodically throughout Suzie Miller’s monodrama Prima Facie, which opened last month at the Golden Theatre in New York, directed by Justin Martin. In the opening minutes the audience is swept up in a tidal wave of details about the tactics the barrister recently used to bait a prosecution witness. A propulsive beat and some tip-toeing footwork from Jodie Comer, the chameleonic Emmy-winning star, add to the sense that we’re watching a live hunt.

Jodie Comer resting on a wooden desk with a chair on top of it.
Jodie Comer in Prima Facie, 2023, performance documentation. Courtesy: © Helen Murray

A graduate of Cambridge, Tessa Ensler would seem a prima facie embodiment of privilege, but there are several layers to her act: she disarms witnesses with a masquerade as an equivocating cross-examiner before she swoops in for the kill, but has also learned to disguise her working class origins, even as she battled bouts of imposter syndrome in her salad days. As a first year undergraduate she was warned that statistically ‘one of the three of you will fail’, but Tessa defeats the odds to become a successful barrister. When we meet her, she has grown into a ‘thoroughbred […] mind operating on ten tracks at once, blood pumping, muscles tightly wound, waiting to spring.’ She juggles a vertiginous workload, which lately has consisted mostly of sexual assault cases, where it’s ‘just one person’s word against another’s.’

Words form the bedrock of this play, and Comer’s Tessa reveals a Cyrano de Bergerac-like facility with them until an incident brings her to a forcing ground of language and what it can and cannot accomplish in the context of law. Until that trial, Tessa is of the opinion that any ‘story has to make legal truth.’ She is not without sympathy for victims, but her training has effectively thrown a dog cone over her legal instincts, constricting her thinking. As she explains, cases of sexual assault don’t hinge on whether the alleged victim consented to sex; it’s often enough to ‘point out that he did not know there was no consent.’ Where some of her male colleagues patronize complainants, making them ‘look like liars’, she prides herself on being ‘clear and concise, nothing more.’ At least, that’s what she likes to believe. To judge by the earlier courtroom playback and the litany of questions we hear her rehearse to perforate a witness’s story, she can be just as merciless and calculating, as some of the male barristers she works with, if not more so. She hasn’t lost a case in months.

Prima Facie red and blue poster.
Prima Facie, 2023, poster. Courtesy: © Helen Murray

Cut far enough into the layer cake of rhetoric, and a less wholesome view of Tessa emerges: a woman who believes she is personally exempt from the forces of sexual harassment. This mentality – or proclivity – to compartmentalize brute facts from the imperatives of her profession aligns her with some who have been dubbed ‘Not Me’ women. What unites these women is a tropism towards men’s opinions, which they absorb as if by capillary action and then aerosolize. Other than two female friends whom she talks with on the phone, Tessa finds herself spending time mostly with male colleagues. As a wet-behind-the-ears barrister, she believes staunchly in the sanctity of the law, which has historically enshrined the rights of men to the exclusion of women and minorities. She thinks in soundbites: ‘The law is there to protect everyone’; ‘due process is everything’; ‘a lawyer’s job is not to know.’ The last via negativa assessment is tossed off as a practical bit of advice about how to defend a client whom one knows to be guilty, but by the play’s end, will come to seem an indictment of the legal system itself.

Jodie Comer holding a wig and thinking.
Jodie Comer in Prima Facie, 2023, performance documentation. Courtesy: © Helen Murray

Prima Facie arcs from a #NotMe play to a #MeToo one when Tessa is raped by one of her colleagues. The bloom comes off the legal rose as she scrambles to reconstruct the events of the night in question. We learn that the violence of the assault prompted her to momentarily dissociate and instead of the allegro tempo of her previous speeches, there’s now a halting, fragmentary quality to her monologue. She is dismayed to realize that, in the heat of the moment, she inadvertently destroyed crucial pieces of evidence by, for instance, showering immediately after being raped. Who will believe her story in light of the fact that she previously consented to sex with her assailant, with whom she shares mutual friends? For all her former prowess in the courtroom, she wilts in anticipation of the questions that will be lobbed at her if she decides to go to trial.

Jodie Comer behind a wooden desk, pointing at the audience.
Jodie Comer in Prima Facie, 2023, performance documentation. Courtesy: © Helen Murray

The play takes a left turn towards the end when the house lights come on and Tessa directly addresses the audience. Her closing remarks unfortunately trade in platitudes. Given the high-octane performance that preceded it, it feels deflating. Nevertheless, Comer does her best to lift lines like ‘the legal system feels broken’, making us feel the effort with which she gouges each word out of herself. In 2023, we’ve heard uncountable variations on this theme, and there’s an apt weariness to Comer’s delivery when she asks the audience to ‘look to your left, look to your right.’ The statistic – that one in three women will be subjected to sexual violence in their lives – may be as old as the hills, but it still hits you like a depth charge. Standing out in relief against the darkened theatre, the white spines of the binders now seem to symbolize not just censorship, but a census.

'Prima Facie' runs until 2 July 2023 at the Golden Theatre in New York 

Main image: Jodie Comer in Prima Facie, 2023, performance documentation. Courtesy: © Helen Murray

Rhoda Feng writes about theater and books for 4Columns, The Baffler, The White Review, The New Republic, The Nation, and The New York Times, among other publications.