Review by Matthew Hocter
Tessa Ensler is as excited about the law as she is about being a barrister. She revels in her ability to defend men accused of sexual assault and with a smugness usually associated with the traditional boys club that leads this type of defence, it is a challenge that Tessa seems to thrive on. A challenge in the courtroom that she likens to the intensity and exhilaration of a horse race. Tessa is at times funny and you want to like her, but ultimately her smugness is what also makes her unlikeable and at times, even arrogant.
Australian/British playwright Suzie Miller, draws on her own her experience as a lawyer, but takes a deep dive in exploring sexual assault and rape with Prima Facie. The story is sickeningly familiar and whilst the focus is clearly on the character of Tessa Ensler and her story, sadly, this is the story of so many women. With recent cases like that in Canberra and the alleged gang rape of two young women off of Hindley Street here in Adelaide, society’s continued inability to believe victims and then challenge them, continues well into 2023.
Caroline Craig (Blue Heelers, Underbelly) is the acting powerhouse behind Tessa. From the minute Craig takes to the stage, her presence is felt and searching for a word to encapsulate her performance is clearly futile. “Captivating” doesn’t even begin to do her justice, there is something so raw, so real about Craig, that it feels as if you are sitting opposite her, like a friend lending an ear and mulling over a glass of wine as she recalls the events of one of the most painful events in her life.
Millers writing is articulate and devoid of fluff. The story is fast and fluid, and whilst long, just shy of two hours, it’s necessary. The nuances involved in reliving something as horrific as a sexual assault/rape is not something that can or ever should be minimised and Miller ensures this does not take place. A relationship initially form in consent with a colleague, quickly becomes one of dissent as an alcohol fuelled encounter culminates in rape. Ensler is thrown into a state of confusion, a common occurrence for many victims post trauma, but eventually manages to lay charges. Once the defender of men like the one who assaulted her, Ensler now finds herself as one of their many victims, a victim of the crimes she helped defend. A complete juxtaposition to how we first met her and yet through this, she still retains a sense of strength and self.
After the charges have been laid, the stage blackens and Ensler returns. It is now two years and fifty five days later and after numerous adjournments coupled with an intrusive cross examination, Ensler now without the protection of her gown and wig, forgoes the formalities and protocol of the court to call out the very system she so vehemently defended. She loses the case, but not her fight.
This is very much a one woman play when it comes to Ensler, but it is far from one dimensional. Ensler frequently recounts stories of friends, colleagues and her childhood, with her Mother’s presence being constantly referenced throughout the play and at the plays most poignant moments, like at Ensler’s court appearance. In many ways, the lack of visualisation of these characters could be perceived as a metaphor for so many woman – their strength is always present and called upon when needed, and yet many times remain invisible to society at large.
Prima Facie first made its debut in 2019, pre pandemic and in the eye of the #MeToo movement. This play is just as urgent now as it ever has been when attempting to shine a light on a legal system that has historically and legally seen women as lesser than their male counterparts, especially where domestic and sexual violence takes place. It is clear that this is a passion piece for Miller and with this, she is continuing the vital conversation around sexual assault and a system that more often than not, fails to protect those that need it the most. An essential piece of theatre that commands you to listen and requires your undivided attention, as uncomfortable as it may be.