Prima Facie

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

24/06/2023 - 22/07/2023

Clarence Street Theatre, Hamilton

29/02/2024 - 02/03/2024

Hamilton Arts Festival Toi Ora ki Kirikiriroa 2024

Production Details


Written by Suzie Miller
Directed by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford

Presented by Kavanah Productions & BRAVE Theatre


Something has to change.

This June Circa Theatre in Wellington will open the play that meets the moment, the play that has the world talking, PRIMA FACIE by Suzie Miller, starring Mel Dodge (Miss Brontë) and directed by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford (Rants in the Dark). This must-see show has sold out throughout Australia, the West End, and is soon to land on Broadway. PRIMA FACIE has just been announced the winner of The Olivier award for BEST NEW PLAY 2023.

With staggering statistics around sexual assault in New Zealand, this play is vital and resonant. It gives us an insight into the way that sexual assault rips the carpet out from under you, and gives a voice to all those who find themselves unable to speak.

Tessa is a criminal defence lawyer at the top of her game and loving it: defending, cross-examining, and playing the rules of the law to win. But when the tables turn she finds herself at the mercy of the very system that she has dedicated her life to. Shadows of doubt are illuminated, making us question, who is our legal system serving? Turning our courts of law into a different kind of stage, this sharp, witty and gripping one-woman show continues an urgent conversation for Aotearoa New Zealand.

PRIMA FACIE – something has to change. A must see for all, especially for our lawyers, politicians, counselors, psychologists, educators and advocators. We are in a time of change, PRIMA FACIE asks the questions that can inspire us to make it a time of growth.

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Wellinton waterfrony
Tues – Thurs 6.30pm,
Fri – Sat 8pm,
Sun 4pm

$30 – $55
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Hamilton Arts Festival 2024
Clarence St Theatre, 69 Clarence Street, Hamilton,
Thursday 29 February 2024 – Saturday 2 March 2024
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Starring Mel Dodge

Produced by Yael Gezentsvey
Set and Costume design by Ian Harma
Lighting design by Marcus McShane
Original music and sound by Briar Prastiti
Projection by Rebekah De Roo
Technical Operator Niamh Campbell-Ward
Stage Manager, Fay Van Der Meulen


Theatre , Solo ,


100 min

A stunning and challenging night of theatre

Review by Gail Pittaway 02nd Mar 2024

By definition, the legal term prima facie means the first impression, accepted as correct until proven otherwise. In the play written by Australian Suzie Miller, herself a former attorney, Tessa Ensler, a defence lawyer, has earned approbation through defending males accused of sexual assault, then she herself becomes the victim of rape. She decides to prosecute the offender, although her instincts and profession tell her that the case will not win.

With a title that refers in Latin, to one primary face, Mel Dodge as Tessa, presents many faces, voices and stances in a solo performance that is a tour-de-force. She assumes multiple roles as colleagues, mentors, family members, who contribute to her back story, revealing that she has changed face and style in order to succeed.

Coming as she does from a working-class home, with a widowed mother and troublesome brothers, Tessa has worked herself up to succeed in a very different world and among a different class. She can adopt the voices, poses and hairstyles of the upper-class girls and mingle with the lads whose wealthy families have given them an edge on success. Later she enacts the moment of assault with astonishing intensity, then presents us with a new range of characters – the police, and court officials – as the case goes to trial.

The play opens with Tessa in grey trouser suit and white blouse, conservatively dressed for court, recalling the thrill of the chase, the race to beat the prosecution in the game of law. Losing a case is called coming second, and Tessa is a skilled manipulator, making her femininity seem a disadvantage, distracting with ploys of ineptitude, before she pounces with killer questions that reveal the weaknesses of the defendant. The world she now inhabits is sexy, high energy, demanding long hours of research and preparation then intense bouts of drunken relaxation. It is during one of these bouts that she has a flirtation with a colleague, one of the rich lads who come from legal stock and they enjoy quick sex in the office, chambers never better named, before continuing with their work.

But one night after a great deal of drinking and dancing they come back to her flat, have consensual sex, then that same night, even though Tessa resists and fights her unwillingness, Daniel forces her, leaving her shattered, abused and broken. Suddenly she wants only the comfort her mother, lowly, ordinary, hunched and inarticulate, can give her.

The physicality of Dodge’s performance is phenomenal, from haughty lawyer, to dancing Queen and tough sister confronting her bully of a bother. Then the assault scene conveys the terror and helplessness through her physical representation of the struggle. There are two people in that scene and one is not listening.

The final section of the play concerns the court case. Shockingly, it takes 782 days for the case to come to trial. How can a person resume ordinary life with that long wait to manage? Indeed, how can a person sustain their anger over such a time and not be further damaged? Though Tessa has already ruined her case at the time, by showering, deleting texts, and of course, on the face of it, publically demonstrating her flirting and pleasure in his company, she speaks up.

The court is not on her side, there is doubt; there has been, as the accused claims, a misunderstanding. While the jury is out making their decision, and not for long, she addresses the court and audience in the crux of the case: the law is set up to protect male abusers, because of the vulnerability of their victims, as accusers. At the end she powerfully repeats the appalling statistic that one in three women experiences sexual abuse. “Look to your right, look to your left” is the mantra she delivers, to remind us of how close and high this factor is, of one in three.

The set adds to the atmosphere of tension and potential threat – it is grey, a chiaroscuro world with two rostra which become the docks, in court, desks and tables in chambers, the bed at the core of the crime and finally a platform for Tessa to declaim her revelation of the injustice of the courts for the victims of abuse. Upstage there’s an extraordinary construction – perhaps a cage such as protected defendants might be separate in, but in response to the music and lighting it transforms into a lava lamp of writhing and rising forms. Are they ropes or snakes? Are they branches or antlers? Is it a cage, a mirror or windows? It is disturbing and unnerving, made even more so by the original music and sound, by Briar Pastiti.

The partnership of Mel Dodge, performer and Lindy Jane Rutherford, director, along with the superb technicality of the crew, combine for a stunning and challenging night of theatre.

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'Something has to change': Standing ovation for Prima Facie at Circa

Review by Sarah Catherall 26th Jun 2023

Prima Facie is the kind of show we need to see more of. It is possibly the most thought-provoking and electrifying theatre work I have seen at Circa Theatre in recent years.

The solo actress, Mel Dodge (Miss Bronte), deserves a theatre award for her performance as a criminal defence lawyer, Tessa Ensler, who specialises in defending men accused of sexual assault – until she is assaulted herself. [More]

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Dodge’s total conviction does great justice to a superbly wrought play

Review by John Smythe 25th Jun 2023

Prima facie, this deep dive into the judicial system we have inherited from Britain presents a serious case to answer.

We dream that theatre can change the world. It undoubtedly has the capacity to take us to places we wouldn’t want to go in real life, to allow the hidden to be heard and to inspire our greater understanding of humanity through empathy. It can give us the language to talk about difficult subjects. But can it bring about real change? Well Australian playwright Suzie Millar’s Prima Facie is doing just that.

Since its Griffin Theatre Company premiere at Sydney’s Stables theatre in 2017, with Sheridan Harbridge in the solo role of Tessa Ensler, Prima Facie has won multiple awards in Australia and more recently, in the UK: the 2023 Olivier Award for Best New Play and Best Actress for Jodie Comer in the National Theatre production. It has been translated into more than 25 languages and so far has had more than 40 productions around the world.

By way of bringing about real change, Northern Island has made the NT Live version mandatory viewing for high court judges before they sit on the bench, and other jurisdictions are following their example. Women Barristers of the Old Bailey have set up a movement named Tessa – Examination of Sexual Assault.

Director of this Circa Theatre/ Kavanah Productions/ Brave Theatre production, Lyndee-Jane Rutherford, also notes in the programme that, “Here in New Zealand, lawyers get two Continuing Professional Development points if they see this production of Prima Facie including a Q & A with me and my creative team. It feels significant,” she adds, “that artists, creatives, thinkers, visionaries and storytellers, who often struggle to make a living wage, will be educating our lawmakers and those who uphold the law.”

Prima Facie follows a successful criminal defence lawyer’s progress from revelling in the “game of law” to becoming the complainant in a sexual assault case. The relationship in question has been fun and consensual until it’s not. It could well have been one of the thousands that go unreported but Tessa’s innate sense of justice cannot allow that. And prima facie (on the face of it) there is a case to answer. It comes to court 782 days after the event.

Traversing the full range of human emotions, physically, mentally and emotionally, Mel Dodge makes the role her own, inhabiting every phase from joyously triumphant to bewildered and demolished then back to a strong determination driven by her experience. Miller has created a superbly demanding dramatic arc, and Dodge and Rutherford meet the challenge with alacrity.

Describing herself and her colleagues as “thoroughbreds”, Dodge’s Tessa draws us into the thrill of employing ingenious legal strategies to win the game, aligning with the accepted view that the rigorous testing of a case by the prosecution and defence will logically produce a just outcome. It is supposed to be dispassionate but the way Tessa shares her inner feelings as she ticks the strategy boxes reveals her delight – and the full house at Circa One laughs along. We love to back a winner.

Maybe there’s a whiff of concern for those at her mercy – but hey, debating has been an honourable sport for generations. This is the adversarial system that plays out in parliament as well as in courts. It underpins our democratic freedoms – right?

As the play progresses, we also get to know Tessa’s colleagues – Damien (Damo), Alice and Adam – her office-cleaner mother and dissolute brother stuck in the outer suburbs, and a law school friend who went to drama school and is now in the UK. They are deftly sketched in to enrich our perception of Tessa’s world. She is not a privileged rich kid who has been to a private school, but she is their equal in playing ‘the game’.

Tessa’s lived experience is relived in present tense narration while she pursues a purpose that slowly reveals itself to sobering yet powerful effect. Always engaging, it moves from ebullient to harrowing to firmly focused. En route, a number of judiciously placed set-ups pay off superbly down the track. “One in three” resonates in more ways than one. The policeman she reports her assault to references the humiliation her strategies have caused him and his colleagues in court. An ingeniously inserted ‘voir dire’ (speak the truth) section allows Tessa to make heartfelt statements that would not be admissible as evidence. Her calling out of the law relating to sexual assault, because it “spins on the wrong axis” is loud, clear and essential.* The script alone is worthy of close study by any aspiring playwright.

Ian Harmon’s professional-to-casual costume design does not include a horse-hair wig and lawyer’s gown, despite their being mentioned in the text (which is devoid of stage directions, I’m told). Harmon’s set design offers levels that are energetically employed, pinpointed with Marcus McShane’s lighting design, activated by Niamh Campbell-Ward who also operates Briar Prastiti’s original music and sound. I personally feel (while a colleague disagrees) that the soundscape becomes intrusive and some of Rebekah de Roo’s abstract projection designs on the mirrored upstage wall are distracting; that hearing Tessa’s responses in silence, as we would in court, would have more impact. That said, the cracks in the mirror are an excellent touch (abetted by sound advisor Chris Ward).  

Having seen the Plumb Theatre production in Auckland last Wednesday, my inevitable comparisons could be said to be odious. However that does allow me to attest that the role of Tessa Ensler is not limited to a particular type of woman. Mel Dodge and Acushla-Tara Kupe are very different people and both filter Tessa’s lived experiences through their essential selves with total authenticity. (I assume the same is true of Sheridan Harbridge and Jodie Comer.) What they do have in common is the admirable capacity to take on this momentous solo role through 100 emotionally-charged minutes with total conviction, thus doing great justice to a superbly wrought play.  

Prima Facie has sold out in Auckland and the longer Wellington season at Circa is booking fast.  

*Footnote:
A number of provisions in New Zealand’s Sexual Violence Legislation Act 2021 came into effect on 21 December 2022. These include:

  • Sexual violence complainants and propensity witnesses being entitled to choose one or more alternative modes for giving evidence;
  • The ability for a sexual violence complainant or propensity witness’ evidence (including cross-examination and re-examination) to be pre-recorded prior to trial;
  • A requirement that any evidence given by a sexual violence complainant or propensity witness at trial (i.e., other than pre-recorded evidence) be recorded, for potential use at any retrial or in other proceedings; and
  • Allowing the judge, on their own initiative or on the application of any party, to order that certain sections be removed from a video recording.

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