On a chilly Brisbane evening SheSociety ventured out to South Brisbane. We were looking forward to an early dinner before Opening Night of Prima Facie at Queensland Theatre. It’s not often an Opening is on a Friday so we were determined to make the most of it. We agreed that the Nanna Anna’s Chicken at Chu the Phat packed a spicy punch. Little did we know that it was mild compared to the punch we were about to receive from the amazing Sheridan Harbridge in this one woman show.
As we lined up to enter the theatre I spied beautiful actor and bespoke hat designer, Libby Munro, wearing a sparkly full length jacket chatting with friends. In front of me was well loved director Sam Strong, who’s in Brisbane to direct and begin rehearsals for Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe. Taking my seat I chatted to Elise from Backstreet Brisbane before spying Dame Quentin Bryce regally making her way to her seat. Behind masks it was still easy to recognise the lovely performers Naomi Price and Kate Miller Heidke. Minister Di Farmer was there to support the Arts. It was a star studded opening made all the more poignant as we thought of our absent Sydney friends, including playwright Suzie Miller.
Here at She Society we are all about women supporting women, so when I heard that Suzie Miller’s play Prima Facie was coming to Queensland Theatre after being postponed last year I had to know more. I first headed along to the recent play briefing where director Lee Lewis, stage manager Khym Scott and actor Sheridan Harbridge gave us an insight into this powerful play.
Prima Facie is a one woman show starring Sheridan Harbridge. Sheridan plays Tess, a young , vibrant and up and coming lawyer who has it all. She’s quickly making a name for herself and is a confident go – getter ….. that is until she is sexually assaulted. Her world changes in an instant.
When Lee Lewis was asked what she wanted us to take from the the play she answered using one word, “ FIRE!”
Suzie Miller is a former lawyer so has been involved in trying many sexual assault cases and been told many stories by women. This story is an amalgamation of all her experience and the emotion she found surrounding these explosive cases, where it is still ‘his’ word against ‘hers’. To this day only one out of ten sexual assault cases are ever prosecuted. One out of ten. Does that mean the other nine women are lying?
In this raw and searing work, Suzie takes us through the life of Tess over a two and a half year period. We meet the glamorous and confident young woman on the fast track to success. After growing up in a different world to her peers, she has worked hard to have it all and is searching for more. Then begins a flirtation with a colleague. All seems well until an event which sends Tess’s world into a spin.
Suzie says, “ The legal system is shaped by the male experience….so sexual assault law does not fit the lived experience of women…. It has always been the victims ( usually) women, who are on trial, cross examined and made to relive the humiliating experience. Yet significantly, research has shown that women giving evidence in sexual assault cases are just not believed, even by other women.”
I still remember being advised as a teen, by one of my parent’s policewoman friends, to never go to the police if I were sexually assaulted as the ensuing trial would be worse than the attack itself. She had seen so many horrendous cases where women were humiliated, scared and shamed. It is advice I never forgot and which was brought back to me under the stark lights and pared back set in the Bille Brown Theatre.
Sheridan Harbridge will be familiar to many audience members from television. You may have seen her in All Saints, The Doctor Blake Mysteries, Rake and Wild Boys. I first saw Sheridan in the play, North by Northwest. At the play briefing she was warm, engaging, self deprecating and funny. She told the story of accepting the role which had originally been offered to Kate Mulvaney.
“I was sitting watching an ice hockey game in New York when Lee offered me the role of Tess. Kate was offered work alongside Al Pacino so was suddenly unavailable. I had to make a decision fast. I was reading the script on the sidelines and from the first page I was hooked.”
I can’t imagine anyone making such a fist of the role as does Sheridan. She commanded the stage for the whole play with hardly a whisper from the stunned and mesmerised audience. Her timing and pacing was impeccable and she was likeable and believable as Tess. She took us on such an emotional journey which seared our hearts and as the play ended the audience leapt to their feet as one for three well earned curtain calls. A single tear made its way down my face as I exited the theatre. I hadn’t realised I’d been crying.
Prima Facie means ‘on the face of it ‘ and the play touched on many themes so relevant to our modern world. Consent , misogyny, truth, sexism, gaslighting, #MeToo, social class and patriarchy were all addressed with the audience invited to explore their own values and experiences. It sends a truly powerful message with its taut and rapid – fire script delivered so well by Sheridan. There is nowhere for her to hide in the Renee Mulder designed stark set of small black stage with only an office chair.
I hope as a mother, friend, writer and feminist that this play will promote honest conversation and reflection as it did in my own home and within my friendship group. Attitudes to women and sexual assault have changed (even in the years since the play was written) but there is still a long way to go. This powerful work should be seen by a wide audience who will no doubt come away changed and more aware and that is ultimately what one hopes good writing will do.
It is also acting at its finest and Sheridan Harbridge’s breathtaking performance will be scorched into your heart long after you leave the theatre. I applaud Queensland Theatre and director, Lee Lewis for not shying away from the tough topics so relevant in today’s society. Prima Facie is playing at the Bille Brown Theatre until August 7. It’s a must see.
Freelance writer, wife and mother of three sons, occasional supply teacher and aspiring romance author, Michelle Beesley can be most often found in a coffee shop chatting with friends or beside a rugby field cheering on her favourite teams.
Michelle is a prolific—albeit reluctant—traveller, keen walker, bookworm and yoga enthusiast who loves anything pink or sparkly (including champagne!).