REVIEW: Prima Facie (Herald Theatre)

Review by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth

Photography by Amanda Billing

[The Injustice of It All ]

Holding court for 100-minutes is a feat in itself for a full cast. However doing so as a solo performer is downright laudable and absolutely deserving of the standing ovation that Acushla-Tara Kupe received on opening night.

Writer Suzie Miller is a former lawyer, and it’s heartening to read that despite Prima Facie being initially set aside, it was revived with the advent of the #MeToo movement. Miller’s intense and insightful script is an actor’s dream and Kupe devours every word and delivers them with great aplomb. She grabs the audience’s attention from the first moment and doesn’t let go, while some well-timed comedic moments provide a much needed reprieve from the weighty subject matter.

Prima Facie is a one-woman play that follows Tessa Ensler, a criminal defence barrister, through the seemingly standard challenges of love, life and career. Hustling from underprivileged beginnings to reach the top of her game, Ensler is ruthless, respected and knows exactly how to use the law to defend men facing sexual assault charges – often at the expense those women that dare to seek justice.

It’s all power and success until a life-shattering event shakes Ensler’s fervent belief in the law, placing her in the very position of the people she’s built her career tearing to pieces – in the name of a fair trial. She faces a legal system that is engineered to fail her and the many survivors of sexual assault she has previously cross-examined. Ensler has no choice but to confront the emotional, societal and legal ramifications of being a victim herself, re-evaluating her previously strongly held views on the fairness of the system that brings perpetrators to justice.

Director Paul Gittins’ artistic vision is demonstrated with absolute clarity. Kupe’s seamless transitions and nuanced performance is testament to Gittins’ brilliant supportive direction of this extremely complex work. In addition, an especially effective choice is the minimal use of lighting, sound, set & AV to focus our attention on the actor and the story being told. This “less is more” approach subtly supports and highlights the action on stage.

Eve De Castro-Robinson’s sound design is of particular note. The sparse use of sound effects, and syncopated rhythms add tension and draw the audience into the scenes playing out on stage. The use of projected milestones to set each scene aids the play’s non-sequential structure. This device also cleverly edits the timeline of events to build tension and explain the legal process without disrupting the narrative of the protagonist’s experience.  

Ultimately Prima Facie is indeed a one-woman masterpiece with the weight to shift perspectives and question what’s black and white in the eyes of justice. The brave way that this play tackles subject matter that’s often either avoided or swept under that carpet is highly commendable. And Kupe’s ability to deliver this scintillating writing, makes Prima Facie a vital theatrical experience that pulls no punches. 

The audience reaction was notable, extraordinary, and palpable in that the narrative clearly resonated audibly with many present.

After the show you leave with the feeling that it is us, the audience, that have been cross-examined in the witness box. We left feeling exhausted but educated and enriched. Prima Facie is raw, with harrowing moments where “No means no” appears to be ‘open to interpretation’ or at times just simply dismissed, and asks whether the law as it stands can actually provide justice in its current guise. 

This show has previously been reviewed as “urgent and powerful” but more importantly it is compelling and essential for people to see.  Should you see it? Yes. And in this case, Yes means Yes.

Prima Facie plays the Hearld Theatre, Aotea Centre 21st June – 9th July 2023

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