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‘Prima Facie’ is bold, challenging and essential viewing

Suzie Miller’s play Prima Facie has been one of the most talked about theatrical works in recent years.

After making its debut at the Stables Theatre in Sydney in 2019, it’s gone on the be an international success with British actor Jodie Comer getting rave reviews in the West End and on Broadway, where she picked up the Best Actress Tony Award.

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Productions have been launched in Turkey, Spain, Iceland, The Netherlands, Brazil, Serbia, Germany and France. It’s a global theatrical sensation.

When Black Swan State Theatre Company announced they’d be staging a new production of this work as part of their 2024 season there was intrigue over who would land the demanding role in the solo show.

Sophia Forrest is a choice that generated significant chatter in theatre circles. It’s the biggest stage role they’ve taken on so far in their career.

After graduating from WAAPA, Forrest has appeared in television shows including Love Child and Barons. They previously appeared in Black Swan’s 2017 production Let the Right One In, and in 2021 stared in the play You and I, directed by former Black Swan Artistic Director Kate Cherry.

The anticipation of how well Forrest would deliver on this opportunity is significant, and they face the almost unsurmountable challenge of following on from last month’s presentation of Heather Mitchell in another Suzie Miller play RBG; The Many. One.

Mitchell’s magnificent performance as US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg has been hailed as one of the most impressive to ever grace the stage at the State Theatre Centre.

Big role, big expectations, and another courtroom drama: everyone ready to judge.

Sophia Forrest’s performance as barrister Tessa Ensler, a top legal mind who finds herself experiencing the law from the other side of the coin, is impressive.

For an uninterrupted hour and 45 minutes, they lead the audience on a journey through into the world of courtrooms where defence layers cunningly unnerve and entwine those in the witness box.

Tessa Ensler is at the top of her game, she’s great at her job, and she’s a young and ambitious lawyer with a bright future ahead of her.

She loves the law, but she’s not from the well-to-do backgrounds like some of her colleagues. She’s worked hard to get where she is.

Her life takes a abrupt turn when she is the victim of a sexual assault. Like most real life cases of assault the perpetrator is someone she knows, and had trusted. Her life is turned upside down as she faces self doubt, anger, bureaucracy and a drawn out legal process.

When her case finally makes it to court and she has to testify about her experience, she’s faced with defence barristers who try to confuse her, twist her words, challenge her memories and paint her in a negative light.

She knows all the tricks of the trade, she is a master of deploying them, but in a battle of wits that doused in trauma – will the truth prevail?

As Tessa reminds the audience, the first thing they teach you in law school, there’s no truth, only legal truth.

Forrest is captivating in the role, taking the audience on a journey that is filled with every emotion. From the high of court room wins, to the rush of romance, and the trauma of assault. The character gives us a direct line to her inner-thoughts as she struggles through self doubt, regret, anger and dismay.

This is a play that comes with significant trigger warnings. When we reach the story’s darkest moments the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats, and on opening night a few patrons understandably opted to leave.

It is a journey into darkness, and has the play illustrates, its one that way too many people have endured. It’s not just a engrossing and powerful theatrical experience, it’s a story that needs to be shared, debated and discussed.

It poses the question, is there a better way for our legal system to treat people who have experienced severe trauma? Just who is being punished the most when cases like this arrive in the courts?

Director Kate Champion has skillfully guided their production so it has the right elements to allow the audience to go on the journey. While many sections of the work uncomfortable viewing, it also has moments of humour and levity.

The brilliant set designed by Bruce McKinven, brought to the stage by Andy Cross with lighting by Peter Young, morphs and melds into courtrooms and bedrooms like an ever-shifting labyrinth. It’s monochromatic walls, columns and tables spin, descend, open and close like a well choregraphed ballet.

The performance from Sophia Forrest reveals a character who is complex. Tessa is smart and savvy, but also tough and determined, she’s a sexual creature, and she’s flawed and makes mistakes, questions her judgements and builds tenacity and strength. Across the show a gamut of emotions are explored.

By programing two Suzie Miller plays in succession Black Swan are inviting conversations that analyse and contrast these two works, and from this flows the almost inevitable conversations comparing the performances of the two actors.

While both are one actor plays, they’re also the same length, and both set in the legal realm. They both give us an insight into the thoughts of remarkable women, one who made her mark on history, the other who is entirely fictional – but their experiences are almost universal.

If the first story from Suzie Miller inspired us to love the law, this tale reminds us of its many shortcomings and failings.

Prima Facie is playing at the State Theatre Centre until 21 July. Tickets are on sale now.

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