C/W: This article contains mention of sexual assault.
From April to June 2022, BAFTA-award winning actress Jodie Comer performed a sold out run of Suzie Miller’s play, Prima Facie. From the masterfully crafted and atmospheric music by Self Esteem, to Miriam Buether’s breath-taking set, the one hour 40-minute production was a masterclass on how to put on a play which all of the 60,000 total audience members, myself included, were privileged to witness first-hand.
From the moment the lights rose on Comer, the audience was captivated. She shone as she seamlessly switched between characters, modifying her accent and physicality accordingly. The audience laughed when she laughed, cried when she cried; her ability to unite an audience is unrivalled. Her performance was, as expected from the Killing Eve star, phenomenal, adding to the allure and success of this spectacular West End debut run. However, the key topic of the play remains the standout aspect of the show.
The play’s depiction of sexual assault and violence is as much a must-see as Comer’s masterful and poignant portrayal of the young hotshot lawyer, Tessa. Whilst this choice of casting undoubtedly sold the tickets to Comer’s dedicated fans, the opportunity to learn more about such an important topic through the medium of stage drew in other audience members, myself included.
Conversations around the legal system and sexual assault are limited. Whilst some students leave school with a basic comprehension of consent, many arrive at university with a lack of understanding around the laws surrounding sexual assault. We often don’t know how the systems work and we don’t feel confident enough in the laws that should be put in place to protect us. It is this lack of confidence in the system which prevents so many people from speaking out about their experiences. With students being the most likely occupation group to experience sexual assault, it is crucial that more is done to educate young people about the legal processes surrounding assault. This was the aim of Prima Facie, which raised thousands of pounds for the fantastic charity, the Schools Consent Project, during its run.
The didactic nature of theatre lends itself perfectly to such a play and its consequent ability to educate, with the Harold Pinter Theatre transforming into a classroom to inform and enlighten its audiences. The atmosphere in the theatre when the lights came down at the end of the play was sombre, forcing people to sit back down in their seats and take the time to process what they had just watched. People of all genders were moved to tears; a woman behind me turned around to the person next to her, whom she did not know, and asked for a hug.
The audience was united in its emotional response: anger, upset and confusion. Comer’s tour de force of a performance not only left people with a greater understanding of the laws surrounding sexual assault, but also with the important question: why do these horrific cases of assault continue to happen?
It is impossible to ignore this widespread issue any longer. From Sarah Everard, to #MeToo, to the increase in spiking seen at universities this year, violence in this form is on the rise. From January-September 2021, there were 170,973 recorded sexual offences, a 12% increase from the previous year. Nearly 33% of rape victims withdraw their complaint within the first three months of it being recorded. Such figures prove that society still has a long way to go to becoming a place where women feel supported by the legal systems and in which we feel safe on dates, in nightclubs, or even just walking home. When opportunities to learn more about this issue arise, such as watching this play, it is crucial that we seize them to ensure that we forge the way to a better and safer future.
The versatility of the theatre triumphs here. Whilst audience often flock to the theatre for escapism and entertainment, they often leave having been educated. The lack of distraction from phones or from work allows you to truly listen to and understand the topics being explored. We invest ourselves in the characters and the settings, and feel pain when characters feel pain. There is, perhaps, no better way to understand someone’s experiences, and to consequently share in their outrage, than by listening to 100 minutes of their innermost thoughts.
As a student body, we should be the most outraged about the issues explored in this play. Students at many universities feel failed by the systems put in place to support them, with many not having enough trust in these systems to come forward about their experiences. Whilst Prima Facie is a challenging watch, it is performances such as this which help to lift the stigma on such important topics, allowing people to feel more able to speak up. Watching the play, viewers should feel enraged. We are reminded to look to our left and look to our right. One in three women experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. As Comer declares, ‘on the face of it, something has to change’ – the use of theatre to normalise conversations around consent is an ingenious to make the changes we want and need to see.
Image: Kevin Schmid via Unsplash