Take the trigger warnings seriously: The woman sitting to my right was weeping; the man to my left couldn’t breathe and had to leave. This is ordeal by theater. Prima Facie has just won the Olivier Award for best play and Jodie Comer has just won the Olivier Award for best actress.
You probably know Comer as Sandra Oh’s co-star in Killing Eve. If so, you know she can transform herself into an enormous number of characters, and she does the same in Prima Facie. She is onstage for the entire 100 minutes of the show, playing all the characters, unrelenting in her rapid-delivery of a tremendous script.
At the start, she plays Tessa, a young, beautiful lawyer, and we watch as she dons the barrister regalia: the tie, the wig, the robe. She climbs onto a desk and the fun begins, “the game of law” as she manipulates the witness, as she buries the prosecution, as she triumphs.
And then everything changes. Julian, her colleague and love interest from work, rapes her. The case goes to trial. Two high-flying defense barristers at war in a game of law she realizes she is bound to lose. The central discovery is summarized in the headnote to the script:
“The legal system is shaped by the male experience, its cases decided by generations of male judges and its statutes legislated by generations of male politicians, against a backdrop where women were once categorized as the property of their husbands, brothers and fathers. So sexual assault law does not fit the lived experience of women.”
And then the play disintegrates before our eyes and stops being theater and turns into an feminist rally: house lights come up on the audience as Comer points at us, reciting the statistic that one in three women will be sexually assaulted, and, despite the spectacular performance we have just witnessed (pun intended), the playwright, herself a former criminal lawyer, has, like the law, failed her character.
[John Golden Theatre, 252 W 45th St, New York, NY] Previews began April 11, 2023; Opening April 23, 2023; primafacieplay.com