Prima Facie

The Pumphouse Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland

18/06/2024 - 22/06/2024

Production Details


Director: Michael Hurst
Writer: Suzie Miller

NZ Theatre Company


Tessa Ensler loves her job. She’s worked her way up from a working-class background to being a top criminal defense barrister at the top of her game – prosecuting, cross-examining and winning in the courtroom with her quick wit and intelligence. Fighting to defend those pleading not guilty – including securing freedom for men accused of rape and sexual assault. Innocent until proven guilty is, after all, the bedrock of human rights.

An unexpected event however forces Tessa to confront the very system she has spent her life believing and working within – a system where the lines of patriachal power and burden of proof are not set up to accommodate the lived experience of sexual assault survivors.

Acclaimed Oliver and Tony award-winning play, Suzie Miller’s Prima Facie is an unforgettable story and one-woman tour de force that has the power to question the structure of the legal system and takes us to the heart of where emotion and experience conflict within the system as we know it.

Prima Facie was first produced by Griffin Theatre Company in May 2019 at the SBW Stables Theatre followed by the award-winning 2022 West End premiere at the Harold Pinter Theatre which then traveled to the Golden Theatre on Broadway in 2023. Prima Facie is currently being translated and performed all over the world and in 2023 was also released into a book.

Directed by NZ acting royalty Michael Hurst and performed by Cassandra Woodhouse, NZ Theatre Company is honoured to bring Prima Facie to the NZ stage and continue the call to action that this story is demanding worldwide.

“SOMEWHERE. SOMETIME. SOMEHOW.

SOMETHING HAS TO CHANGE.”


Cast: Cassandra Woodhouse

Sound and Lighting Design: Sean Lynch
Operators: Christina Christopher & Geoff Evans


Theatre ,


90 minutes (no interval) No admission once the show has started.

Sublime storytelling shaped for us by a theatre genius. A gift without ego.

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 19th Jun 2024

The Online Oxford Dictionary defines serendipity as ‘the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way’. I am unashamedly a fan of all things serendipitous.

For a full explanation of its relevance to this review, see below.*

So, serendipity, that unique alignment of experiences, came together for me last evening at the opening night of Michael Hurst’s production of Suzie Miller’s disturbing new play Prima Facie and it did so like a resounding wake-up slap in the face.

A minor digression: when I experience good work – and this is really good work – I invariably do that irritating thing called ‘making comparisons’. Yes, I know ‘comparisons are odious’ and have been clearly labelled as such since John Lydgate first coined the phrase in Debate between the horse, goose, and sheep somewhere in 1440. Cervantes, Marlowe and Donne have also tartly reminded us of this fact from time to time, and Shakespeare, with all his ironic smarts on show, gives the divine Dogberry ‘comparisons are odorous’ which suggests that the phrase was well known by 1599 when he quilled Much Ado About Nothing. Thanks, Gary Martin, for doing that research.

Odious though comparisons may be … see more below.**

Arriving at The Pumphouse is always great. Top service, a lovely venue, thoughtful staff. The Pumphouse experience is always a pleasure. The auditorium fills up with a disparate array of persons – an excited school party, the blue rinsers out in force, a good few thespians, and Pumphouse regulars. There’s an excited buzz.

I’m here with my whanau, wife and adult son. Going to the theatre together is a shared joy, time away from the archery range and the karate dojo. They know their theatre, wife trained under Dick Campion, son has been in quite a few shows. They’re smart, and astute.

Lights fade, cell phones, are hidden (but not all are turned off), the set is simple, a desk, folders, a chair, coat stand, barrister’s wig and gown. We know where we are immediately.

It’s a solo show so once the solitary actor appears we know that’s it for the next 90 minutes. Theres no interval. It’s just us and Cassandra Woodhouse. There’s an attractive programme, useful, nicely presented. Clean cut. It’s all very clean cut.

Woodhouse plays Tessa Ensler. There are resonances in the name. Ensler. She’s all dolled up in successful lawyer garb, black and white. She does stuff with her hair. She’s confident, super confident, and she loves her job. She’s extremely good at it, too. She tells us all about it, at length. It’s interesting, background, court-roomish, a bit about the others in her chambers. By the end of ten minutes, I think to myself ‘I dislike this woman as much as I’ve disliked every lawyer I’ve ever met’ (I have a chequered past, so I’ve met a few). At least I thought I’d just thought it until a quiet male voice next to me says ‘except Sensei Leo’. Sensei Leo is a senior karate mate who is also a lawyer. I nod, quietly, ‘yep, except Sensei Leo’. I make a mental note not to speak my thoughts out loud ever again.

Woodhouse is excellent at pissing me off, well, Ensler is. It’s smart work and implies where the arc of the narrative is headed. Enough, not too much. Woodhouse is in control of the narrative even more than Ensler is in control of her courtroom, just impressive enough and without ego. This is a highlight of the evening for me, no sense of ‘this is me up here’ just Miller’s text, the storytelling, never a hint of overplaying. Or ego.

I can see the wheels turning, know that there’s a master behind the scenes, because I know how this stuff works, but this is all Woodhouse. ‘Performance begins where memory leaves off’. The nuts and bolts of rehearsal have been screwed tight and the director has stepped back. Afterwards, when It’s all over, I recall how lonely it can be up there on your own, how complex the letting go process is for directors, how easy it is for the wrong person to be in control once the lights go up, but this is all Woodhouse, that transition has been managed superbly. I’m selfishly glad, because the play’s the thing, the actor is in charge, and I get the unvarnished truth. In a play that’s ultimately about ‘unvarnished truth’, this seems more than a tad important.

There’s a subtle shift. Woodhouse’s delivery becomes more naturalistic. She’s sharing relationship stuff, she’s softer, more relatable, the pace is perfect. There’s no time for us to overthink what’s happening in any unnecessary (and indulgent) pauses, there’s just the story so much of which has been set up in those first few minutes. The big surprise is that there are no surprises. There’s repetition of key phrases, we’re reminded of the first day at Law School, the three, the importance of three in the wider context of the narrative: one in three women.

One in three women. I guess this is a spoiler, but if we’re not on the same page by now that’s down to you.

The rape is graphic, but not in a way that’s anything like too much. It draws you in, it doesn’t shut you out. It’s Greek chorus time, there’s some mention of dissociation (I remember that only too well, been there, done that) and Woodhouse goes there. And stays there for as long as it takes. It makes the horror of her rape accessible, understandable, relevant. I remember one in three, one in seven. In this audience of one hundred and fifty, with probably one hundred women, that’s thirty-three who will really get this intimately, I do too because I’m one of them.

I was ten.

This is brave work. For Woodhouse obviously. For Hurst too, He’s driving this Ferrari, and he needs to know when it’s time to come up for air. Time to back off. Clearly, he does. Such admiration.

Brave of us in the audience too. Yep, so brave.

Now we’re back in the courtroom. Ensler has waited 750 plus days for her day in court. She reminds us of the number because numbers are important. One in three. Because we need to remember. We need to be told. We need to be reminded that there has been no change in the numbers since I first heard them at Lopdell House fifty plus years ago.

And let’s not forget how many women don’t report their assaults and rapes, how the few who do report seldom make it to the KC’s playground, how even less ever result in convictions.

We’re back in act one but the boot is now firmly on the other foot. Woodhouse is brilliant. Throughout she creates subtle pictures of the characters in her narrative. No overplaying. Barely any playing at all. But I see them vividly – Alice, Mea, Mum, the brother, the kind KC, Adam, the big cop, the policewoman, all beautifully and effortlessly sketched. To me effortless, but then I don’t know all the work that’s gone into creating this mahi.

While the outcome is predictable, Woodhouse doesn’t let us off the hook. It would be so easy to editorialise the end, but she doesn’t, it’s as pragmatic as everything else she does. She leaves the summing up to us, the jury, in the carpark, in the car, at Dominos’ pizza, and on through the night.

I ask my whanau what they thought. The young man says ‘outstanding’ and goes back to his game. The spouse says, ‘it made me fucking angry’.

What did I think? I think ‘Prima Facie’ transcends what I know to be ‘the theatre experience’ and it’s become something else that I have no name for. It’s sublime storytelling from a sublime storyteller, shaped by a theatre genius, and it’s for us. A gift without ego. No strings attached. As teamwork it’s beyond good and I should stop writing now.

Hurst is often described as ‘theatre royalty; but, given what we know about our own royalty, I’d say he’s much better than that. I know his work well, but this is, in my view, the best yet. In lesser hands it could have been boutique, but Hurst and Woodhouse make it a work for the ages.

I don’t know Cassandra Woodhouse at all. I didn’t before and I still don’t. I do know Tessa Ensler however and isn’t that what acting is all about? I don’t need to know the actor, but I do need to know the character, ’warts and all. She gives me that, and more.

So I will echo my son and say Woodhouse is ‘outstanding’. I will echo my spouse as well. One in three. Remember that. One in three.

* Memory Lane? More like Memory Cul de Sac …

In 1956 Miss Boldero, my Standard 2 teacher at wrong-side-of-the tracks Linwood North School in Otautahi Christchurch, did the unthinkable (for the times) and bundled her 40 odd charges into a bus and took us to see The New Zealand Players and John V Trevor’s production of A Unicorn for Christmas at the Civic Theatre. I’d never been to the theatre before, had no idea even what it was, but I was hooked. In the stellar cast was twenty-year-old Raymond (then Ben) Hawthorne to whose life I have been inextricably linked (even if he doesn’t know this) ever since. 1

This information can be searched at the National Library of New Zealand where it is termed ‘ephemera’. Ephemera are things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time, in my case 70 years. It’s not ephemera to me. 2

In 1972 I attended a Lopdell House (now a West Auckland theatre) Education Course for Special Education teachers. I’d been head-hunted to run a school in Taranaki for ‘emotionally disturbed’ kids. The idea, because I was apparently ‘good with kids like that’, was to get them up to academic speed and back to their home schools but there was a problem no-one foresaw, the home schools didn’t want these seriously troubled kids back. As though it were yesterday, I can recall a presenter from the Social Welfare Department sharing some frightening facts with us: one in three girls and one in seven boys will experience sexual abuse during their lifetime, girls often before they are sixteen. I realised that I was one of the ‘one in seven’ and that was the day my healing began. Sexual abuse is not OK.

It’s 2024 and those stats haven’t moved. Statistics NZ tell us that ‘1 out of 3 girls may be sexually abused before she turns 16 years old. Most of this abuse (90%) will be done by someone she knows and 70% will involve genital contact. 1 in 7 boys may be sexually abused by adulthood. Approximately 1 in 5 New Zealand women will experience a serious sexual assault.’

If those statistics don’t curdle the milk on your Weetbix, nothing will,

In 1975 I jumped ship walking the plank from the quagmire of education to the bright lights of professional theatre and was invited to join the Theatre Corporate company in Tamaki Makaurau whose Artistic Director was Raymond Hawthorne. Nice segue?  I thought so, but it gets even better. In 1976 Raymond cast me in A unicorn for Christmas by Ngaio Marsh, directed by Roger McGill and I played the paired role of Brother Jasper from the past, and a modern-day priest from now and it was both great fun and very moving considering my history with the work.

The serendipity continues as I recall the arrival of a young actor at Theatre Corporate, one Michael Hurst, who was reputed to never let the dust settle. So it proved, he was an excitement machine! Raymond cast us together in Alonso Alegria’s two hander ‘Crossing Niagara’ but ‘circumstances’ conspired – that’s another story – and it sadly never happened. I have since been relegated to the role of consumer of Michael’s prodigious output and it’s a joy to sit in that chair.

** ‘Odious’ comparisons: I’m going to transgress anyway so you can see clearly just how well I rate this production. There’s no comparison between the content of my favourite works, the date or place I’ve experienced them, nor the experience of the team assembling them, but simply my subjective response, in no particular order, to what I consider to be excellence. Each of these productions changed the trajectory of my life. On this odious list I have a couple of Hamlet’s, one in Zurich in 1998, and Sam West’s at the RSC in 2001, in 1998, Eve Ensler’s solo work The Vagina Monologues, a range of Cabaret in Berlin in the late 1990’s, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People with Sir Ian McKellen and Penny Downie at the National Theatre in 1998, Yasmina Reza’s Art with Courtney, Finney and Stott at the Wyndham, The Importance of Being Earnest at the Abbey in Dublin, Shopping and Fucking at the Royal Court, The Christian Brothers with Peter Carroll, Roy Patrick Donaldson’s The Maids by Jean Genet at Theatre Corporate with Jude Gibson, Erin Heffernan, and Sylvia Rands, Mervyn Thompson’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade with Cathy Downes, Raymond Hawthorne’s The Beggar’s Opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Two Tigers, Elric Hooper’s production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class, and Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons dangereuses and, last but not least, the Bell Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar. Seventeen works that have transported me to where great theatre takes us … oh, and Michael Hurst’s Prima Facie with Cassandra Woodhouse. That’s eighteen. Yes, I think it’s that good.

1) New Zealand Players Company Ltd :[The… | Items | National Library of New Zealand | National Library of New Zealand (natlib.govt.nz)

2) Theatre Corporate :[Theatre programme… | Items | National Library of New Zealand | National Library of New Zealand (natlib.govt.nz)

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