In ‘Prima Facie,’ a Lawyer Puts Her Own Rape on Trial

The one-woman play, starring Jodie Comer and currently up for four Tonys, interrogates sexual violence. It also allows survivors to feel everything but OK.

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In ‘Prima Facie,’ a Lawyer Puts Her Own Rape on Trial
Jodie Comer as criminal defense attorney Tessa Ensler in Prima Facie. Photo:Bronwen Sharp

There’s a question that awaits every survivor of sexual assault after they confront what’s happened to them. Actually, I know from experience that there are several, from obtuse (did you have too much to drink?) to just plain offensive (why didn’t you fight back?). But more often than not, one that’s somewhat more well-meaning inevitably reveals itself: Don’t you want justice? Such is what the audience is prompted with every performance of Prima Facie, Suzie Miller’s one-woman play that opened on Broadway this spring after an Olivier-winning stint on the West End, and is up for four Tony awards this weekend.

Justice, as protagonist Tessa Ensler finds after she’s raped by a colleague, is elusive. It can’t be earned, and it’s exceptionally individual. In the 100-minute play, Ensler, an esteemed criminal defense attorney for men accused of sexual assault, portrayed without restraint by Jodie Comer, is an avatar for sexual assault survivors—a faction of people Miller is well-acquainted with. Before the Australian playwright found the stage, Miller occupied a different kind of theater as a human rights attorney. For years, she was charged with taking victim statements—at least six per week, but sometimes more—from mostly women and noticed the very patterns Ensler painstakingly unpacks for captive audiences of Prima Facie.

“When I was at law school, I remember thinking that it was really strange that everyone seemed to think it was OK to focus on whether the men believed there was consent rather than whether there was or wasn’t,” Miller recalled in an interview with Jezebel. “Then when I became a lawyer, I took a lot of sexual assault statements from young women, and I was shocked by how consistently similar they all were in terms of the reaction. It was in the days when saying, ‘I froze’ wasn’t seen to be an appropriate response. You had to have a fight-or-flight response in order to prove that you are resisting or rejecting.”

More often than not, something akin to paralysis—a temporary suspension of time, space, and, most damaging of all, logic—takes over. It’s a reaction in survivors that the audience sees Ensler not just interrogate but experience firsthand. Miller was certain that British director Justin Martin would treat it with empathy.

“My problem with the legal system is that my life is as influenced by the women in my life as it is by the men in my life, and the legal system is not, and it should be in order to work for all of us,” Martin told Jezebel. “I think what I hoped to do was to provide a way that I could get into the conversation with men who often look at a play like this and go, ‘Oh, that’s not for me, or it’s hard work, or I’m not going to enjoy myself.’ They’re the people I want to talk to.”

Upon first impression, Ensler is a sharp, sensible, and self-assured legal star with working class roots. She’s swiftly made a name for herself clinching victories for her clients by strategically sowing just enough doubt in survivors’ testimonies. Ensler is proud of this, evidenced early by the way she practically makes a meal of cross-examination. Lawyers are simply storytellers, she reminds us. Just as easily as they can devise their own narrative, they can dismantle another’s. Ensler does both with the arrogance of someone who defines themselves not just by their job, but by the law writ large. Such was Miller’s intention when writing Prima Facie.

Photo:Bronwen Sharp

“I was thinking, I’ll take one of those really diehard believers, which, of course I was when I started law—I thought, ‘Yeah, the law is about justice’—and then I’ll put them through the process, so they see both sides of it,” she said.

Ensler’s perspective on the other side arrives after she’s sexually assaulted by a colleague, Julian, a little less than halfway through the play. They’d maintained an in-office flirtation, gone on a mutually enjoyed date, and had consensual sex more than once. Ensler’s case, quite bleakly, is anything but black and white, which much of her work has already made her aware of. There are discrepancies to be discovered and dissected should she ever offer herself up to cross-examination, and though Lady Justice is supposedly blind, she’s certainly not deaf. Ensler is faced with a difficult decision: Either she does what the majority of those who survive sexual trauma do and remain silent, scrounge for pieces of peace, and attempt to move forward; or, she presses charges and risks public shame and professional peril.

First, Ensler puts herself on metaphorical trial, examining her every decision. Had she railed hard enough against the roughness of her perpetrator? Why did she take a shower after the assault? Didn’t she know better than to leave her apartment and delete Julian’s text messages? “The restaurant bill indicates there was a lot of sake drunk by you both, witnesses say you were giggling, yes?” she imagines an attorney prompting her. “And there are two empty red wine bottles at your house, wouldn’t you agree?” “You took off most of your clothes, is that right?”

Then, she unravels. As she calls for her mother and pleads with a taxi driver for a ride, actual, honest-to-goodness rain falls from the ceiling in steady sheets. A barefoot Comer and more than one member of the audience are inconsolable.

When I attended the play in mid-May, it was this pivotal, painful moment—stained by a certain kind of self-loathing and psychological torture known singularly by survivors—that penetrated deeper than many other narratives about sexual assault. Not because I can still vividly recall so many moments of my own that look staggeringly similar. Rather, regardless of Ensler’s decision, what’s done is done. There can be reclamation after rape, but there is never remission. Not really.

“Everyone who’s seen the play—who’s, you know, a thinking person—looks back and realizes that there’s been so many near-misses or so many close encounters where they felt pressured to do something, or they felt that they’re in danger and had to find their way out of that,” Miller said. “You realize that a lot of us have stories.”

There was a little part of me that wanted to give her that victory. And then I thought, ‘Well, that’s not real and it’s not going to change anything if I show a lie.’

Ultimately, Ensler chooses the system she still thinks she can trust and takes herself to the police station. With her back to the audience, facing a camera atop a tripod, she tapes a deposition that will be submitted as evidence. Only a close-up shot of Comer’s face is visible on a screen onstage as she cries, and contorts, and questions her own memory. The scene is quite deliberately suffocating due entirely to Martin’s direction, which was informed by British police.

“I went to the Brixton police station with the sexual assault unit, and sitting in those tiny rooms where people have to give those testimonies…[the scene] was trying to find a way to articulate that experience,” he explained. “It just felt the best way to give a subjective sense of what it must feel like to know that that is being recorded forevermore and the questioning that they have to ask in order to ascertain what happened is, by nature, invasive.”

Over two years tick by—marked by rain and a clock onstage—before Ensler and her perpetrator are reunited in court. She recognizes her mother’s aging face, Julian’s wolfish friends, former colleagues, and women she anticipates will judge her during the proceedings. “Women can be just as bad at believing women,” she notes.

By the time Ensler takes the stand, we never learn what she’s asked by the defense attorney. Instead, the audience witnesses the same exercise in humiliation she once administered to others with aplomb. She stutters, splutters, and struggles before regaining a measure of strength. For a millisecond, I wondered if, in some twist, she might actually win her case. Frankly, I’d have been disappointed in its inauthenticity if she had. Miller agreed.

Photo:Bronwen Sharp

“There was a little part of me that wanted to give her that victory,” she confided. “And then I thought, ‘Well, that’s not real and it’s not going to change anything if I show a lie.’ It might make people feel a bit better as they walk out of the theater, but they won’t have to interrogate the fact that we all owe it to the survivors amongst us to say, ‘You are able to be believed, and you will be believed, because we will actually activate to change the law.’”

In the end, Ensler discovers the only justice to be had is that which we determine for ourselves. “I have lost my career path, friends, peace of mind, my safety. The sense of joy in my sexuality. But most of all, I have lost my faith in this, the law, the system I believed would protect me. The system I dedicated my life to,” she says. She may be part of the one in three statistic, but even still she is an outlier: She’s employed, surrounded by people who care for her wellbeing, and able to recommit herself to her work with a newfound compassion. “Look to your right, look to your left,” Ensler instructs just before curtain as house lights go up, imploring the audience to meet the eyes of the one in three nearest them. In a packed theater of people who look to be dedicated Killing Eve fans, and older tourists able to afford the steep ticket price, it’s uncomfortable. Especially when you find yourself one of those who is audibly weeping.

Comer, who has one of Prima Facie’s Tony nominations for Best Actress, gives a performance that is, in one word, relentless. She leaves the stage only once in 100 minutes and rarely takes a pause. I couldn’t help but worry how she’s done it eight times a week since April 23 and is still able to meet a melee of admirers at the stage door each night.

It’s difficult—not just as a survivor, but as a feeling person—not to become instantly enraged when those around you aren’t quite as affected as they should be.

“She’s physically, emotionally, mentally, and probably, you know, psychically just taken through something that’s so extreme,” Miller said. “And yet, at the other end, she’s a professional, she finds her way out of it again, and she goes back to her apartment and goes to sleep and gets up and does it the next day. I think someone doing that at her age and with her level of talent…it needs to be rewarded.”

Leaving Prima Facie, I realized that Comer’s Ensler faces not just one jury, but a second: the audience. The latter can be just as cruel.

“I hated that,” I overheard one older woman remark to her friend as they were departing the theater. “All she did was scream.” More startling were the reactions from a handful of male audience members, who left laughing with their companions or remarking about making their dinner reservations.

“I think the bit that always frightens me is that you go, ‘OK, so obviously [Ensler] makes the point that one in three in this room might be sexually assaulted,’ but then, the implication is, maybe one in three men have also done something like that,” Martin said. It’s difficult—not just as a survivor, but as a feeling person—not to become instantly enraged when those around you aren’t quite as affected as they should be, and even more so when you remember why you’re as affected as you are.

As I reached the end of the aisle on my own way out, I recognized none other than Monica Lewinsky with a group of people I assumed to be friends. Her hand was on the shoulder of the woman seated next to her, who had yet to regain her composure. “Are you alright?” I heard a concerned Lewinsky ask. The woman wasn’t, but then, so few of us are.

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