My, what a lot of acting Jodie Comer is doing in the one-woman, one-act Broadway play Prima Facie (at the John Golden Theatre through July 2). At the start, Comer’s English defense barrister Tessa Ensler is standing on a law-office table with her back to us. Why is she standing on a table? So she can leap off it! Here she is, climbing back on. And leaping off it again! The woman is a force of nature, like cholera.
Comer is, I suspect, all but unknown among American men but revered among women (who constituted 75 percent of the audience at the performance I attended and were even barging uninvited and unannounced into the men’s lavatory). Her preposterous British television show Killing Eve, a kind of female-empowerment serial-killer saga (tune in to savor “patriarchy’s impact on the already delicate complexities of female relationships”—Salon) is a cult hit (among women) in the United States and a huge success in the United Kingdom. Her fans came to see Comer act. She acts. A lot.
Comer’s tiresome technique is overly to moduLATE her voice and switch on and off among many different accents while also racing among different TONES, REGisters, and moods, frequently withIN the same SENTence, all WHILEENDLESSLYSHOUTINGANDRUNNINGHERWORDSTOGETHER in such a way as to remind me of some of my least favorite cocaine-powered 1980s stand-up comedians. Comer’s act, alas, comes without jokes, or at least without funny ones. To be fair to the actress, however, Suzie Miller’s play is rubbish, so throwing a great deal of effort into the performance is possibly the only way to keep people seated for an hour and forty minutes of undergraduate-level turgid tendentiousness. An actor should never be caught trying too hard, a standard Comer breaches within about sixty seconds and continues on with for the entire play, which among other overdetermined choices sees her getting drenched with rain at one point.
Averting my eyes in embarrassment from the ghastly spectacle, I found it amusing to look at the audience members, largely women in their thirties and forties wearing expressions somewhere between awe and delight. The play and the performance are winning lots of awards, because rarely does an artist fail to be rewarded for loudly restating the most-approved clichés.
The program gives us a clue what we’re in for with this notice: “the pre-music to our show is our composer’s album: PRIORITISE PLEASURE by SELF ESTEEM.” Oh dear. Below that we’re given a slogan in large letters, in a box so as to be unmissable: “On the face of it something has to change.” I’m afraid that a play that is so brazen and direct about its function as promotional equipment for a social argument must, in part, be adjudged by the soundness of that argument.
Comer’s barrister Tessa is a chipper, likable, but arrogant and perhaps morally challenged youngster who boasts in great detail about her latest triumph, in which at trial she created enough reasonable doubt to win acquittal for her client. Her casual references to the charge facing that defendant and several other clients—sexual assault—make it wheezingly obvious what is going to occur in the play. You can hardly call it a twist if, as the saying used to go, Ray Charles can see it coming. Tessa breezily lets slip that an expert defense lawyer doesn’t ask her client if he’s actually guilty; if the plea is not guilty, she says, the lawyer simply constructs the best possible story out of the facts and seeks to destroy the other side on the path to victory.
Tessa will (of course) be forced to reconsider things from the opposite point of view. In grotesque detail, she tells us about a sexual affair that went wrong. A fellow barrister named Julian, who is described in such a way as to make the audience picture a privileged white man, flirts with her and the two have a merry shag on an office couch. After a formal date and a second consensual sexual encounter, Tessa tells us, she was feeling ill from the effects of too much alcohol and refused him. Nevertheless, Julian held her down and forced himself on her. She, after collecting herself and bathing, pressed a charge of rape and, more than two years later, finds herself testifying at trial.
Her increasingly terrified account simply restates, in the form of a blustering dramatic monologue, one seminar-room truism after another. This isn’t drama but merely a screed, and Miller has absolutely nothing new to add, either in the realm of storytelling or insight. Tessa declares that women aren’t valued, their words are not heeded. She declares any system that makes her feel this bad is in severe need of reform. She complains that she, the victim of a rape, is herself being unfairly put on trial.
No, but if you seek to deprive a man of his liberty, you must prove your case, and answering questions under oath is not only not an unfair burden but an absolute requirement. You’d think a lawyer would grasp these basics. A dispiriting feature of our contemporary discourse is that people advancing very bad arguments, frequently while being lauded for their “courage,” do not even spell out what they’re saying, relying instead on an implied argument that would appear absurd on its face—prima facie—if actually said aloud.
The argument the show makes—something has to change—is that although Tessa has no physical evidence to offer, her testimony alone ought to be enough to convict. This can’t be taken seriously, and neither Comer nor Miller actually wants to live in a world where a single, evidence-free allegation is held sufficient to destroy their sons, boyfriends, father, brothers, uncles. Women are not angels; they are quite capable of lying. Some are not only capable of lying but of acting out extreme distress for an audience.
Moreover, the presumption of innocence, and the burden of proof being placed on the accuser, are simply the bedrock of a liberal legal system that cherishes liberty and hates to take it away. The inevitable price, well understood by all who have considered the matter for more than a moment, is that many guilty people can and must go free to protect as many of the innocent as possible from the mammoth power of the state to punish.
So no, it isn’t true that something has to change; the play is not only overwrought and blunt, it is built around a void. It’s simply a matter of intellectual laziness, or vapidity, for Miller to pretend that there is some solution that will provide for the swift and just punishment of rapists, or any other kind of criminal, without sweeping in innocent people. Rape may be a harrowing crime to experience, but there is no justice without due process.