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‘Prima Facie,’ Suzie Miller and Justin Martin’s play about sexual assault, is leading a cultural and policy shift

The playwright and director reveal their process behind crafting the new drama.

(L-R) Actor Jodie Comer, director Justin Martin and playwright Suzie Miller at the opening night of "Prima Facie" on Broadway (Credit: Jenny Anderson)

After practicing law for over a decade, Suzie Miller experienced a crisis. She served as a children’s rights and human rights defense lawyer in her native Australia, anchored by the deeply held principle that she was “protecting all those people that go to court so they don’t go to jail,” Miller recalled. But then, as part of her work, she began taking statements from victims of sexual assault. “I thought, ‘There’s something really wrong here and it’s scaring me,’” she remembered. “I didn’t know if I could continue practicing.”

“When I did stop practice and was writing full time, I thought, ‘One day I have to unravel that — about why I thought the law was faulty,” Miller continued. What resulted is her tightly crafted solo play “Prima Facie.” Having begun with a production in Australia, the drama moved to London, where it earned Olivier Awards for Best New Play and its star, Jodie Comer.

But the play is more than an award-winning drama, it’s the unveiling of the global plague of sexual assault and rape. “It’s the epidemic of our age that no one’s talking about,” said “Prima Facie” director Justin Martin. According to the American College of Obtsetricians and Gynecologists, in the United States, more than one in three women have experienced rape, sexual violence or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. “It’s one in three within Australia and one in three U.K.-wide,” Martin said. “The stats don’t line up with the reality of what the system is trying to do. And the bit that always gets me is: When you look around the room and there’s 800 people in that theater, and the unsaid statement — which everybody’s terrified of — is not only that one in three [experience it], but one in three are doing it. That’s a frightening abyss.”

Though “Prima Facie” follows the story of one woman, Tessa Ensler, it is an interrogation of the law itself. Tessa is a whip-smart attorney who often defends (and wins cases for) men accused of sexual assault. But her world splits in two and she shatters when she becomes the victim of rape. Just as Miller questioned her principles, so too does Tessa.

“A lawyer is a mouthpiece to someone’s story, doing the best possible version of it,” said Miller. It was how she explained her job to her kids. “But at some point I thought, I manipulate that story so much and other lawyers aren’t as good at that manipulation. So what does that say about justice?”

Through Tessa’s story, Miller and Martin investigate that very question.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Suzie, you’ve said that the idea for the play had been rattling around in your brain since law school. When did you actually put pen to paper and what was it that spurred you to do so?
Suzie Miller: The play suddenly had its opening couple of lines in my head and once I started writing it, the rest of it unfolded before me. I felt excited about going in that way. The hardest part was restraining myself from getting to the point of what the story was about too early. I had to set up things before I could then start to dismantle them. I couldn’t have written it 10 years ago because I think I would’ve raced ahead with a kind of anger and lack of craft. It was the right time. I think it was 2016 that I actually wrote the first draft.

Though you’d been thinking on it since law school, it seems your experiences as an attorney influenced you deeply.
Miller: I didn’t actually ever represent people accused of sexual assault, but I took so many statements from young people — both men and women actually — and they were so reluctant to take it further. When they did, they all lost. Every single one of them. They’re only trying to get this guy off the streets, or to protect other women or other men or whatever. It was such a reluctance to go to the police and talk about it.

Because I think everybody knows that the deck is stacked against you.
Miller: [The law] comes from a good place, it comes from the place that’s saying someone doesn’t go to jail unless they definitely did something. And that works on all other crimes.

That acknowledgment was so powerful — that crimes are and can be different from one another. It never occurred to me that you could have a split in the legal system. It seemed that to overhaul it for this kind of crime would mean to overhaul it for every kind of crime. Therefore, it’s unsolvable. What you’re proposing with this play is: Why couldn’t a different crime be treated a different way?
Miller: There is a way of doing it where you shift the onus. If a woman can prove on the lower balance of probabilities that she wasn’t consenting and we believe that in her mind she wasn’t, you shift the onus to the man to say, “Tell us why you thought she was.” That’s one option: You change the onus. But then, of course, defense lawyers like myself in other crimes would go, “That’s a really dangerous precedent for other crimes.” But the difference is that you could actually set up a different court for sexual assault [cases]. I’m just proposing certain outcomes, but I don’t know what the answer is because it’s really complex. Aside from the law, juries just don’t convict on sexual assault because they have the same rape myths: Well, what was she doing out, anyway? We have to actually change that mindset.

And that’s what “Prima Facie” works towards. As the first lines started to come to you, was it always a solo show?
Miller: Yes, it was solo show because I didn’t want to have a rape onstage. I wanted us to know from the minute it happened to her that it was happening to her. I didn’t want [audiences] to go, “Oh, but what’s he thinking at the time?” I wanted them to know she did all the things that you’d expect someone that doesn’t want this to happen to them to do. And yet in court, that same story that we witnessed [Tessa telling as a defense attorney] has now been turned against her. I had to leave all those crumbs of where she was, showing Tessa in the height [of her career], and then pick them up in the second half.

For me, it was also powerful to have her there alone onstage because she was in control of everything. She chooses how to tell the story. She chooses when she walks here, when she walks there. Watching Tessa be the only voice — when you know that in the actual story, there were so many other voices around her — there’s catharsis in that.
Miller: I wanted people to lean into her inner voice. And Justin really heard that when I first said it; and it was why we worked so beautifully together. I think women have a constant dialogue inside their head.

Justin, you’ve worked as a director and an associate on some of the largest theater I’ve seen: “The Inheritance” which was two parts and had a massive cast, “The Jungle” which is a beast to put together. What was your reaction to a solo show and making it have the theatricality of something that isn’t one person standing talking to you onstage, but that feels robust?
Justin Martin: What I love about the one-person thing in the show is that because you are just getting it from her perspective, everybody else in the show's in your imagination. So I have my version of [the character] Julian connected to the boys that I went to school with. I know who that is in my head, but you will have a different version of who that is for you. That has a real power to it.

Initially, Suzie had written the play with a smaller theater in mind. So how do you make a larger space feel organic?
Martin: We were going, “How do we find a production which doesn’t swamp the play? And how does it amplify further what the play is trying to do?” I’ve had the luxury of having worked with [director] Stephen Daldry for a long time. It’s a conversation we’ve had in all the shows we work on: How do you find that stage language? What is the relationship to the audience? So, trying to find a barrister’s playground is the context of the set. [Scenic designer] Miriam [Buether] and I spent quite a bit of time at the Old Bailey and some courts, and we were always struck by the white folders everywhere. Then, because being a barrister is inherently theatrical — you are performing — what I was always looking for was little stages within stages. Tessa standing on a table or coming downstage … it was [answering], “Where are the little stages in which she can be?” When you watch and you really think about it, 85 percent of the show she’s downstage center and everything else makes it feel like she’s not. It’s a circus trick.

What a feat!
Martin: We enhance that through movement and asking: What is the theatrical language that can give you an insight to what’s going on in her brain? The rain was one of the first parts of the design that we wanted. Suzie had written this provocation in the script: A pause happens. You said, Suzie, “The audience, post the rape, always need a moment.” They did it very simply in Australia with a jacket change. It always felt to me that there was something about the rain and the [post-rape] shower — which was such an iconic moment for her when she suddenly realized she’s washed everything away. How do we articulate that in a different way? She’s outside, she’s feeling very vulnerable. Naturally, the bit just formed. The show was built around this rain at the center and a transformation from a first half — in which she feels completely in control of the world — and the second half — in which she’s no longer in control.

I really was fulfilled but also astounded by the way in which every element really complemented the other. The lighting directs the audience’s eye and also makes it feel like the space is bigger or smaller. That set from Miriam is so flexible on the inside, but static on the outside — boxing her in. By the end, your message comes forward so clearly. Was there a grounding principle that you could always come back to as the center of your play?
Martin: The barrister’s playground is something I kept coming back to. And stages within so the story itself could speak. Getting out of the way of the play because the play had such a strength and spoke to me so clearly. A lot of the design conversation, particularly for the end, was really about going, “What the play does is leave us with this situation — which is one of many. How do we get a sense that it’s one of many?” You can’t dismiss this as a singular story. The other rule that I made for myself is: If she says it, she shouldn’t physically do it.

Okay, well that brings me exactly to my next question: How do you make narration effective?
Martin: For me it’s always about: How do you activate reported action? What you don’t want in a narration is: I’m telling you what happened … what happened … what happened. Because there’s nothing active going on for the actor. A lot of the journey with Jodie was trying to work out how we activate the language. When in doubt? Discover. Play the line as a discovery.

As a director [I ask]: How are the words in conversation with the staging — as opposed to just supporting it? [Jodie] can also be playing two characters at once — which I’ve never seen someone do to the extent she’s able to. So her voice is doing the teacher, but her face and her physical response is being a student. I find it invigorating. ’Cause your brain’s going, “There are two things happening at once!”

Miller: It’s great to hear Justin put words to that, actually, because I saw him do exactly what he just said. It was one of the many reasons he was the right director for this piece.

And Justin did this great thing: He started the play already in speed.

The pacing is breakneck. Is that also that trick of the multiple stages? How do you keep up the pace without exhausting your audience, without exhausting your performer?
Martin: I love theater when it’s just ahead of me. It’s just that bit ahead of you and you are catching up and then it slams the brakes on for a second; you catch up and then it charges off again. I find that riveting and exciting and it drives you through the show. But it’s also the speed with which [Tessa] can think. I’m hearing her thoughts. She’s a very intelligent barrister. Suzie used the line 10 tracks at once. In a weird way, it’ synonymous with the character, her confidence, her self. Physically, I don’t know. It’s interesting. We speak that fast when we speak to each other. But for some reason in drama, we don’t. It doesn’t make any sense.

Suzie, you said earlier that you knew Justin was the right person to direct. I was told that you were also very specific that you wanted a male director. Why? Tell me about what your collaboration delivered to you both.
Miller: I wanted this male director — specifically Justin. When I came to London, I met Justin before I met anybody else. He just got it so intuitively and built on the ideas I had. He has this wonderful way of hearing things as a man, but also in that bridge between men and women. I felt really strongly that I could trust him with this. He just has a sensitivity and a sensibility, as well, where he can dig really into what the thematics are.

He offers a different perspective from you in multiple ways.
Miller: He knew that we were talking to an audience of [not only] women. He came into the room saying, “This is a conversation between men and women, but I really acknowledge where I stand in that conversation as a man. So I’m here to not be a centerpiece, but to actually have a vision for the whole that everyone will feed into. And I’ll be the recipient of all those visions and come up with something that I think creatively kind of encompasses all of that.”

I don’t want to silo [this play] off as something that only women see, that only women understand. I want men to see it. And what’s been really amazing to me is the men that have seen it said, “I saw [assault] from the person’s perspective.” Possibly the reason the play has been given some kudos for having a sense of cultural shift is because the men are part of the conversation.

Justin, were you eager to be able to have a hand in this conversation? Were you tentative?
Martin: I was eager. Suzie and I share maybe a slightly naïve belief that theater can change the world.

If you’re wrong, I don’t want to be right.
Martin: The issue around sexual assault isn’t a female issue, it’s male. We are the problem and we, 99 percent of the time, are committing these crimes and we need to be a part of the conversation. We need to find how maleness exists. The play was really a way to talk about the world that I want in the future. That doesn’t mean me lending my privilege, it means me going, “The patriarchy has damaged all of us.” I am who I am because of the women in my life as much as the men, whereas the legal system is still stuck as relying on the male influence. That needs to change. It’ll only get better the more that we re-look at it through the lens of men and women.

And the lens is even wider. With the production having gone from Australia to the U.K. to here — and Tessa’s world is the U.K. — what’s so powerful is you realize this isn’t just our legal system that has this problem. We need global change.
Martin: It poses a question and it’s very brave that it doesn’t give an answer. And that’s why the Schools Consent Project, the idea of training juries, [are important]. Suzie’s very humble about what’s going on in the U.K. at the moment but every judge in Northern Ireland is having to watch it as part of their training. In London, at the moment, there is the TESSA [the examination of serious sexual assault] law, which they’re trying to put through, that has come about through barristers who have been involved in or seen the play. We’re being a proactive part of the conversation.
Miller: A judge called me having seen the show and said, “I’m the judge at the Old Bailey that writes the direction to the jury — sexual assault matters where the judge has to read out what you must not listen to. And she said, “After I saw the play, I redrafted it so that it says if a witness doesn’t give their evidence in a chronological line or if there are missteps that could be based on trauma, don’t assume they’re lying.” When I put down the phone, I thought, “That might be the best thing that I’ve ever done.”