Prima Facie: What happens when it’s her word against his?

In the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp more and more people are questioning the systems which govern our lives, most of which have been made by men to service men. Our legal system is no exception — the scales remain heavily weighted against women. Prima Facie, a new award winning play, focuses on the failure of the Australian legal system to provide reliable pathways to justice for the victims of rape, sexual assault or harassment whom, statistically speaking, are predominantly women.

Written by playwright and former lawyer Suzie Miller, Prima Facie follows Tessa, a criminal barrister who loves to win, even when she is defending clients who have been accused of sexual assault. It’s all about respecting the rules and the system, carefully manipulating victims so that they reveal more than they intended. But when Tessa find herself on the other side of the court, everything changes.

We had the privilege of speaking with Sheridan Harbridge, who plays Tessa, ahead of Prima Facie’s opening in Canberra.

Leiden: What has been your experience in the role of Tessa and of being part of the production?

Sheridan: It’s been an incredible experience, I feel very privileged to be able to tell this story because it is so potent and prescient. As an actor also, the play happened at the same time as the Geoffrey Rush case, so again that felt timely.

In terms of the experience in the rehearsal room, it was difficult but wonderful. We have had quite a lot of lawyers come to see the show and many have thanked us for holding up a mirror to what they do.

It’s been hot, exhausting and wonderful!

L: Is the first solo show that you have done, I can imagine it’s even more exhausting holding the space by yourself.

S: It is, I’ve done solo cabaret but it’s so different when there is a pianist with you and I find music really draws the focus of the room to one place. You also sing a song and then have a moment to breathe before moving on to the next one. With Prima Facie, there is no time to lose, it’s ninety minutes non-stop. There is no time to think, no time to analyse what’s just happened, no time to think of what’s ahead — it’s fast and furious.

L: I imagine that would be quite energy intensive too because you don’t have that back and forth with other people on stage.

S: Yes! It’s really athletic, I definitely feel fit for it. It takes a lot out of you.

L: And it’s not just physically demanding, it would be so mentally demanding too because of the subject matter.

S: It is demanding and exposing. It’s just me and the audience.

L: One in three Australian women have been sexually assaulted so the odds are that everyone who sees this play and everyone who has been a part of putting together has been touched by that. Is that something that has touched your life and that you could draw on in this role?

S: This is something that has effected people in my life that I am close to. Everyone has a friend, a mother, an aunty, a grandmother, a niece that their heart breaks for. I have had incidents that I have managed to maneuver myself out of, but doing this show I realised that I have so far been unscathed.

What happened to me when rehearsing for this was that I realised that I had something to lose. I felt so safe and then suddenly I was so aware that someone can take something from you that can change you forever, and that is so unfair. Something can come along and push them of course and give them a life that they never wanted.

My heart goes out to the people who have had that happen to them. I think in the show what hits home is that the assault isn’t the worst thing that happens to Tessa, it’s the aftermath. It’s the seeking justice, the self-loathing, the self doubt that is part of that the process.

L: The play touches on feminisim and how the systems that we work within can change the way we express our own values. What are your thoughts on this?

S: A conclusion that Tessa comes to in the play which I think about a lot is that the law is constructed by us. We often think of it is a sacred, mythical thing, but it was made up our society and as a society we have the power to re-make it. Tessa realises that the law has been constructed by men based on their own experience and that this inherently does a diservice to women. To express equality through the law the law needs to take into consideration the experience of everyone it is supposed to serve.

It’s an idea that applies to other systems that we operate in as well, historically most of them are shaped by men and this is something that needs to change. Something I work on for myself is constantly monitoring my assumptions and asking myself how they might have been influenced by the patriarchy.

Prima Facie

Canberra Theatre Centre

Wednesday 26 – Saturday 29 June, 2019

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Emma Batchelor

Emma Batchelor

As well as a near obsessive interest in fashion, Emma is a former scientist, occasional contemporary dancer, avid reader and self-confessed cat lady (she has three). Emma lived in Leiden in the Netherlands as a baby and Leiden ought to have been her middle name had her mother thought of it at the time and not chosen Louise instead.

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