Prima Facie
Prima Facie

Playwright Suzie Miller on How Prima Facie Holds a Mirror Up to Society

“Once you start losing faith in the system, you have to be careful,” says the playwright Suzie Miller. Miller is referring specifically to the legal system, where she made her living for 15 years as an attorney focused on social justice and human rights before turning her attention full-time to her current craft.

This spring, Miller is making her Broadway bow with the one-woman piece Prima Facie. Jodie Comer (Killing Eve, The Last Duel) stars as a talented young defense lawyer who’s passionate about her vocation — just as Miller was — but also becomes conflicted. For Comer’s character, Tessa Ensler, who represents men accused of rape, the shift occurs after she herself is sexually assaulted.

The play’s seeds were planted back when the Australian-born Miller — who divides her time between London, where Prima Facie has already enjoyed an acclaimed run, and Sydney — was studying criminal law. During an exchange year at the University of Toronto, she met the renowned legal scholar Catherine A. MacKinnon, who “gave us the tools and the language to talk about law from a feminist perspective,” Miller says. “I had read her work, but actually hearing her speak was life-changing.”

V, the playwright formerly known as Eve Ensler — Tessa’s surname, not coincidentally — was also an inspirational figure. “I met her in London, and she was just this really articulate figure who could speak about her own sexual assault as a child, and had done so much for women,” she says.

When it came to choosing a director for Prima Facie’s U.K. production, though, Miller selected a man: Justin Martin, whose work on stage and screen ranges from the Tony Award–winning The Inheritance (for which he served as frequent collaborator Stephen Daldry’s associate) to the hit Netflix series The Crown. Miller had been “riveted” by Martin and Daldry’s West End production of The Jungle, a study of the plight of refugees at a large European camp.

“Someone mentioned they knew Justin and wanted to put us together,” Miller says. “He really got the play on a theatrical level, and had a couple of beautiful ideas.… Also, he’s a different kind of man. He’s not ego-driven, and he’s very pro-women. And we wanted to enlist men into this conversation, because it’s fundamental they understand the issue; otherwise, change won’t happen.”

Martin recalls first reading the play while on vacation in Spain. “I just burst into tears, surrounded by all these people who looked at me like I was this strange person going through a breakdown,” he remembers. He, too, thought that Prima Facie “could help make a genuine change in the conversation. It can’t just be women yelling into the wind; it has to be all of us. The brilliant thing about theater is that it creates empathy, and if we can do that within the male community, that can ultimately lead to change.”

The director also shared Miller’s interest in the legal system’s particular role in combating — or not combating — sexual assault. “It’s a system that has been built for men, in the same way that seat belts have been built for men, and one of the questions we need to ask is, How do we change these institutions that have been built over generations? One thing I hope the play does, at the very least, is change the perception of jurors, because we’re all potential jurors, and the preconceptions we can take into a jury should change.”

Miller notes that while she hasn’t been assaulted on the level that Tessa is in the play, “I’ve had family members who have had very serious experiences. And as I was writing this play, looking back over my life, you know, you reassess some of your sexual experiences, and realize that things weren’t quite consensual. Maybe you thought they were at the time, but there has to be a better benchmark for how we discuss things.”

On a lighter note, the playwright admits that when Comer was first mentioned for the part of Tessa, she was only familiar with the actress’s work on Killing Eve and thought that, like her character in that series, she was Russian. “She’s such a good actress that I assumed she wasn’t English! And she’s been the most sensational person to work with, so real and authentic — and fun to hang out with as well. When you’re doing a play over and over, you want to be with someone you can have a laugh and a drink with afterward. She’s all those things and more.”

While “a master of accents,” as Martin also notes, the Liverpool-born Comer did not adopt a plummy British one for Tessa, whose lack of socioeconomic privilege is another factor in the play. “That class difference can be an invisible thing in Australia, and possibly in America; people think we all have equal opportunity,” notes Miller — who, like Martin and Comer, comes from a working-class background, and was the first in her family to attend college.

The playwright says she was “more nervous” about bringing Prima Facie, which premiered in Australia, to London than she is about the Broadway transfer. “I just feel like the U.S. is more part of the new world, more able to interrogate itself, not steeped in thousands of years of tradition and majesty. There’s something about the U.S., and particularly New York, where they seem prepared to self-examine in a really strong way.”

To encourage that impulse, the production is partnering, as it did on the West End, with the Schools Consent Project, a U.K.-based charity devoted to educating young people on issues surrounding consent and sexual assault. In addition, Broadway’s Prima Facie is working with Everyone’s Invited, a digital safe space offering survivors a forum to share their stories anonymously.

A film of the London production has also “been used to educate new judges about what some of the traps are in court,” Miller points out. “I was afraid initially about how I’d be perceived by my ex-peers, writing something like this about the legal system. But as it turns out, they’ve jumped on board in droves.” She adds, “I can only hold a mirror up to society, and hope that people working within the system now try to do something about it.”

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