Opening night performances often end with a standing ovation, sometimes as a slowly staggered act of obligation. In the case of the conclusion of Suzie Miller’s brilliant Prima Facie, however, Queensland Theatre audience members are immediately on their feet in an acclaim of thunderous applause that lasts through three curtain calls. It is an especially significant display of praise given that the riveting 100-minute tour de force indictment of the legal system is a one-woman show.
While it may be a little play in scale, Prima Facie is clearly about big #metoo ideas. What makes it ultimately gripping, however, is the storytelling skill of its performer Sheridan Harbridge. She plays 30-something Tessa, a self-described ‘bastard defence lawyer’ at the top of her game who likes to work hard and play hard. “The law is the law,” she says and as she has been taught. This is what she trusts, above even her own instincts. It’s a mantra that has been a key part of her successes as a criminal attorney … successes that have seen her acknowledged with the promised prestige of new chambers.
The story is told entirely from Tessa’s perspective. The clearly-confident, cool-headed criminal defence barrister has worked hard to rise from working class origins to succeed in the upper class private school world of the law, which both legitimises and humanises her as a character. Her ruthless addition to the adrenaline of cross examination of witnesses is clear from the outset as she reveals in her charismatic retelling of courtroom experience of the game of law.
She flashes back to early law school days, with Harbridge effortlessly assuming a range of distinct characters with which to enliven each anecdote. Tessa is initially unfaltering in her belief that the law is a tool for justice, the something life-altering happens to her that betrays the beliefs at the core of her identity.
The role of Tessa is a challenging one. Harbridge has a remarkable emotional range and exerts control over every performance element in what is a compelling character study. Staging in appropriately simple. Renee Mulder’s set design focuses on a lone swivel chair on a raised platform Mastermind style, while projections signpost the sometimes non-linear timeline. The choreography of movements around the platform adds much to audience engagement.
The play is well-constructed and suitably paced to take the audience on a journey from the humorous to the harrowing. The script considers language carefully, such that there is a truth to seemingly the simplest of lines. They are brought to full poignant potential by Harbridge’s faultless performance as a determined woman.
The hard-hitting play not only scrutinises the Australian legal system, but forces contemplation of one clearly defined by patriarchal values. And while it is piercing in its social commentary, it is also highly accessible. The critically lauded and awarded show had a previous life. It was written in 2017 (before the #metoo movement) by former lawyer Miller. It remains powerful and provocative. Prima Facie is playing at Queensland Theatre’s Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane until August 7th, 2021
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane