Reviewed: Prima Facie, Suzie Miller, Picador Australia
Melbourne-born playwright and now novelist Suzie Miller has rightly received extraordinary praise for her one-woman play Prima Facie, which examines how courts routinely fail victims of sexual assault. With the star impact of Killing Eve’s Julie Comer playing high-flying criminal defence barrister Tessa Ensler in London’s West End and New York City’s Broadway productions, Prima Facie has gone on to enjoy a fairytale run. No doubt seeking to further capitalise on the play’s global success, Prima Facie has now been recast as a novel.
The narrative switches between present-day Tessa, an attractive and successful London criminal defence barrister, to law student Tessa, who has to work to support herself while on a scholarship at Cambridge. As her well-connected, ‘trustafarian’ friends swan around campus without a financial care, we learn of Tessa’s background as a working-class, housing estate kid from northern England.
In the present, Tessa expertly eviscerates female sexual assault complainants in court by day, while sleeping with a distinguished male colleague by night. As Prima Facie readers will most likely come armed with pre-existing knowledge of the shocking date rape at the heart of the narrative, much of the dramatic tension centres on each sex scene, as we try to speculate exactly when the violation will come.
Written in the present tense without quotation marks or paragraph indents à la Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Miller provides a direct window into Tessa’s thoughts and feelings as she experiences them. While the novel is the ideal medium for exploring a protagonist’s interiority, this is exactly where Miller’s adaptation falls flat. Despite offering more of Tessa’s backstory than the one and a half hour play could, we still don’t know much about her, other than that she really likes sausage rolls and shopping.
Similarly, every supporting character, from ‘rich but nice’ Mia, ‘good guy’ Adam, to ‘posh, entitled’ Julian, her love interest-turned-rapist, lacks the requisite specificity for them to come to life on the page. Far from imparting a nuanced glimpse into life on the economic margins, Miller instead offers us tired stereotypes. From her dim-witted, overprotective brother Johnny who’s forever getting glassed in a pub to her unrefined mother, Tessa’s family come off more like extras from EastEnders than fully developed characters with their own complex, inner lives.
This flaw could perhaps be remedied if the book was shorter. The pivotal sexual assault occurs at the novel’s halfway point on page 160. We learn nothing about Tessa or the competitive world of criminal law in the preceding chapters that couldn’t be conveyed in half that. The ensuing rape trial doesn’t begin for another hundred pages. While Miller is right to point out the administrative violence of never-ending adjournments and procedural trickery utilised by wealthy defendants, the book ends up mirroring this needless delay.
Miller offers a strong critique of the way the testimony of traumatised sexual assault victims is picked apart by skilful barristers, accurately depicting how the human mind struggles to recall key details when subjected to acute stress. But the same cannot be said for her analysis of the role of the police or the media in the systems’ failings. In contrast to the police forces’ well-documented bias against rape victims, Tessa receives nothing short of textbook professionalism by each police officer she encounters when she reports her sexual assault. In the moments leading up to her highly improbable, climactic courtroom speech, she goes so far as to make meaningful eye contact with a young female police officer, as if to say, we’re all in this together.
After the verdict is handed down, a woman news reporter rushes up to Tessa not on the hunt for a scoop, but simply to thank her. While these moments are of course entirely plausible, it ends up painting a rather rose-tinted portrait of both professions. In the wake of the catastrophically poor treatment of Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame by the police and media in their respective sexual assault complaints, readers may find Miller’s conclusions somewhat lacklustre.
Despite its shortcomings, Prima Facie is destined to reach a broad audience and will spur more important conversations about rape culture and the many failings of the adversarial justice system. For that, we should be glad. For anyone wanting to experience Miller’s unquestioned talent as a playwright, the upcoming second run of of RBG: Of Many, One in Sydney would be a far better investment.
Sam Elkin’s debut book Detachable Penis: A Queer Legal Saga will be released by Upswell Publishing in 2024.