FringeReview UK 2022
Directed by Justin Martin, Set Design Miriam Buether Lighting Design Natasha Chivers Sound Design Ben and Max Ringham with other compositions by Rebecca Lucy Taylor AKA Self-Esteem.
Broadcast Team Director for Screen, Robin Lough, Technical Producer Christopher C Bretnall, Lighting Director Bernie Davis, Sound Supervisor Conrad Fletcher, Script Supervisor Annie McDougall.
Subject to Encores viewings. Consult NT Live website.
‘We’re thoroughbreds’ pronounces Jodie Comer in her West End debut. And she doesn’t just pronounce, she prances up on a desk, nostrils almost flared, to carry the racing metaphor to equine levels of testosterone in Suzie Miller’s solo play Prima Facie at the Harold Pinter NT Live. By any standards, Comer’s debut is phenomenal.
Whatever this adrenaline-flared world is, it’s male, and any woman in it might be riding for a fall, especially when Comer swivels on her chair, stands and spouts: ‘It’s not emotional for me. It’s the game. It’s the game of law.’ A former lawyer, Miller knows her turf.
Comer though makes this live. She’s high on how she tricks a blasé male witness into self-betrayal by degrees. You’re reminded of Glengarry Glen Ross. Again, male signifiers all. ‘The job is not to know, but to not know.’ Don’t trust your gut instinct, but your legal instinct.
Like Comer, Tessa’s Liverpudlian, the state school girl who’s made it to Cambridge, where she sticks out. She’s doubly focused on winning. ‘Look to your left and right. One in three of you will fail’ pronounces the Cambridge Law School professor to his ‘literal crème de la creme’ (yes, they really do claim things like that!). It’s a key speech Miller brings round with ringing, desolate power at the end, though there’s a lot to get through, much of it difficult not just because of the upsetting nature (trigger warnings provided, see below) but the way Miller swerves to polemic late on.
Directed by Justin Martin, Comer’s Tessa Ensler is remarkable for the way she paces, swivels, uses everything in her set to slow and shade her tempi, a ranging pitch of others’ voices, as she jump-cuts her life following a roughly chronological sequence in the first half, with later flashbacks.
Her ambition, her complete belief in the law, the chase as she handles defence brief for men accused of sexual assault; always picking apart evidence. Tessa feels it’s virtuous, to prove beyond reasonable doubt. Test to destruction. Not personal. When she describes office sex she swivels on her chair in a voluptuous spin of memory on the sofa. Comer uses voice and body as lightning conductor for storytelling. If the start’s a bit Villanelle, the rest is far closer to her magnificent performance in Help, or – more comedic – her freshly-minted take on Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance.
She’s aided in her different registers by Miriam Buether’s compact design, which features on occasion her trademark illuminated rectangle. It’s a single-set barrister’s chambers – leather chairs, oak tables, three-sided floor-to-ceiling case files that Comer keeps taking down; and which Natasha Chivers’ lighting gives a terrible epiphany to right at the end. Comer manages too several talked-through quick-changes from horsehair-wigged barrister, to cerise casuals to green party-dress.
It strips to black in the second half, whereas the first began to deconstruct the cosiness: chairs tipped over and at a climactic brief faux-interval sheeted rain. There’s a brief pause for Comer to change as we move into the very different latter 50 minutes: a courtroom drama for one. Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design lend a subtle beat (you almost miss it) rising at moments of intensity. Elsewhere songs by Rebecca Lucy Taylor (AKA Self-Esteem) conjures hedonistic shores. On NT Live we’re treated to a performance in the set itself, with a chorus living out the same drama musically in two minutes.
Comer here is breathtaking, altering her voice from sotto voce to near-scream, shifting from witnesses to lawyer to her strangely knowing Liverpudlian mother. Harrowing witness, from romance to vomiting in a toilet – a visceral moment in itself – to being nearly stifled then an ordeal that makes her rush out into pelting rain to the nearest police station. There’s more zig-zag as Miller’s narrative, avoiding obvious linear threads, mimics the way Tessa does everything she chides witnesses for: confusion, accidental destruction of evidence, showering, deletions, till she gets wise. But is it enough? 782 days and an at first traumatised Tessa, prone to flashbacks for ill and sometimes good – hardly the word for recall in this instance – finds her voice to denounce actual lies, clever defence insertions.
It’s where most find fault, not with Comer’s incandescent performance – who else now could pull this off? – but Miller’s allegedly clunky writing that Comer so convinces us is Tessa’s legal and gut feeling fused. Just what the law denies, and why the system turns on rape crime in particular. Yes, legal agitprop but who cares? True, Miller might have tricked-out her consummate sashaying of narrative to render this last section less preachy, but she wants cumulative force to burst and make us remember. On balance, not guilty. The coda’s memorably fashioned.
NT Live feature another discussion too. The production is teaming up with charity The Schools Consent Project, the brainchild of lawyer Lucy Parker who takes part in the discussion chaired by Emily Maitlis with writer, actor and others before the show.
With record delays since covid in bringing rape cases to court – and statistics of one in three women experiencing sexual assault, but only 1.3% of rapes prosecuted and of those less than 6% convicted – as Comer and Miller say ‘The system is broken’. The one designed for men, designed for testosterone, for wins. That one in three speech comes round with undeniable force, and Tessa reflects it was her later best friend Mia who didn’t make it at Cambridge, but dropped out to become a successful actress.
The broadcast team prove this ideal for NT Live and NT AtHome viewing; dare I say it, better than the best seat. Comer’s never too close-focused, the set’s compact square is allowed full play; yet there’s every kink and knack of Comer’s performance, with her visceral, rising intensity given undistracted free rein. Colour values allow a sudden blossoming amidst the subfusc.
Full disclosure. As foreman of a rape trial I was isolated in finding for the prosecution. Two witnesses flew back from the dramatist’s country, Australia, specifically to give evidence and declare they saw the rape. My co-jurors (one married to a judge, who apparently pronounced ‘tricky… you can’t really convict in rape trials’) wanted only ‘sexual assault’. One said the rapist was from Mars. So a majority vote. The judge realising a rare open-and-shut case was in danger, found a dodgy pretext and doubled the sentence for sexual assault, giving what would have been the sentence for rape. Rough for him, but a ringing justice. I was congratulated by my fellow jurors for holding out against them. That wasn’t the point, I wanted to scream.
This is the finest piece of theatre on this subject I know. It ought to be required viewing: the Project has plans. We do know though that if Comer doesn’t receive awards for this there’s no justice at all.