Sunday 26 February 2023

Prima Facie

National Theatre at Home

Streamed 2022 (initially broadcast 21st July following a run at the Pinter Theatre)

Let him think I have lost my way

Browsing a renowned Brighton flea market last year, I came across an American theatre magazine from 1954 (a subscription address on the back indicates it was once owned by Roy Plomley incidentally). One article entitled ‘Thirty Million Angels’ envisages a future where a “TV viewer will be able to see the Broadway premiere of a play in his own parlour” by purchasing a subscription by mail. Technology has thankfully simplified the means for streaming theatre since then but the article was certainly right about the public’s demand for it. Born out of lockdown as a substitution for live cinema screenings, NT at Home is now as accessible and affordable as monthly subscriptions to Netflix or Disney+. Following a successful run in the West End and a record-breaking cinema release (one cinema in Sheffield screened it a staggering 228 times), Suzie Miller’s one-woman play Prima Facie is now available to stream until 9th March. So, living in a town with a population of almost 60,000 but with no theatre or cinema, we’re able to watch it from the comfort of our living room.

Top criminal defence barrister Tessa Ensler (Jodie Comer) has unlimited potential. From a working-class background, she made it into Cambridge, passed the bar, and hasn’t lost a case in months. Catapulting us into the play’s relentless pace, the opening sequence introduces us to Tessa cross-examining a witness, lulling them into a false sense of security before going in for the kill. Miller’s text is like a stream of consciousness: her protagonist analyses every raised eyebrow and each paper shuffle, dissecting the game of cat and mouse in which she lets the mouse think it’s got the upper hand. In this way, Tessa is every bit an actor as Comer’s protagonist in Killing Eve. She plays up the innocent, inexperienced lawyer act to uncover any trace of doubt in a witness’ story. But underneath Tessa’s ability to navigate the system is an unshakable belief in the process of law. For her, the right to innocence is a human right. So when Tessa is raped by a colleague, she struggles to square legal instinct against the reality of human instinct.

Comer shows us Tessa’s unstoppable energy from the start. After winning a case, we see her dancing on a table and doing shots in a nightclub at 2am and then back in silks munching on Chipsticks by 8. She radiates Tessa’s confidence and embraces her successes and later devastatingly conveys her isolated terror. Intricate details in Miller’s text leave indelible images which root the play with a sense of character and place. When Tessa goes back home (Comer’s Liverpudlian accent comes to the fore here) she sees her mum picking up carrots from the floor. It’s such a small moment but one which evokes pity, love and a sense of home all in one line. Justin Martin’s production brings together different design elements to also give the play its forward momentum. Natasha Chivers’ lighting, for instance, can take us from the warmth of home to the intrusive white light of a police interview room.

The play takes a phenomenological approach as it explores Tessa’s personal experiences. When she’s being medically examined she tells us “eyes on the ceiling, gritted teeth” giving a sense that she’s trying to survive each passing moment. Miller’s language is prosaic if a little over-egged especially later on when we see her take the stand: “this brightly lit, suffocating courtroom”, for instance. When the play turns the dial up on its polemic, Comer stares down the camera to remind us of the depressing statistic that one in three women are sexually assaulted. It would be easy to say this is too preachy, but here the play cleverly steps out of its world, aware of the responsibility it has, and embraces its voice.

There are also some effective decisions from Mathew Amos as its director for the screen. One frame captures both the large oak table adorned with bankers’ lamps along with the wine bottle from the night of the rape which shows how entwined Tessa’s professional and personal lives are. And in the closing moments, the floor-to-ceiling shelves of folders in Miriam Buether’s elegant design gain new meaning to suggest the scale of injustice in a system where the odds are stacked against the victims.

There have been a number of fine single-actor plays in recent years (Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott, Richard Gadd’s Baby Reindeer). Combative and fierce, Prima Facie is another momentous addition to these. We may have been at home, but I was totally absorbed in the play and Comer’s towering performance that I forgot the interruptions of everyday life.

Prima Facie is available to stream on NT at Home until 9th March. Jodie Comer then reprises her role at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway from 11th April.

Jodie Comer in Prima Facie. Credit: Helen Murray

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