The painfully relevant Prima Facie heads to Geelong, questioning the Australian legal system, sexual consent laws and their effects on victims

The painfully relevant Prima Facie heads to Geelong, questioning the Australian legal system, sexual consent laws and their effects on victims

Words by Bethany Long

This one-woman show will have you laughing, questioning and inspired to create change.

Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault.

I’m a pretty big fan of a night at the theatre. There’s something magical that happens on the stage between the audience and the cast that can’t be replicated binge-watching on a laptop. So I’m very excited that the Geelong Arts Centre has a phenomenal Winter Escape Season.

The show I’m most interested in? Prima Facie.

Not only is this show award-winning (it won the 2018 Griffin Award), but it touches on complex issues in a unique one-woman show!

Discover more local arts and stage events via our website.

In the show, a fiercely competitive lawyer – Tessa – who loves to win (even when defending questionable, potentially guilty characters) finds herself on the other side of the bar – and in the shadows of doubt – she’s placed many women in before her.

Speaking to the show’s star, Sheridan Harbridge, she acknowledges that her character is a complex one.

“She’s such a ballsy character. At the start of the show, she’s a barrister at the top of her game, having a really good time playing the system and playing the game of barrister.”

But when Tessa finds herself on the other side of the bar, the career she’s dedicated her life to is drastically thrown into a new light.

“We’re always attacking the victim. In the court system that’s how it works, you integrate the victim and not the accused. And I think the public has started to shift their interrogation of the victim as well.”

The show portrays a side of these sexual assault stories that we don’t often see – the intimacies and intricacies of the judicial system.

“This show is really potent at peeling back this problem that we have. At the moment, statistically, only one in ten sexual assault trials come back with a guilty verdict. And if you’re looking at that, it’s sort of suggesting that nine people are lying, which we know isn’t true.”

Drawing from her own experiences and the stories shared with her during her time as a barrister, playwright, Susie Miller, is truly living the Mark Twain adage, “write what you know.”

“It’s a culmination of a lot of stories… A lot of [the show] is based on her experience watching survivors go through the legal system… That’s given the show a really rich landscape.”

Another thing that’s given the show its rich landscape? Sheridan’s portrayal of Tessa. Given the show is a one-woman show you could be forgiven for not fully understanding how it will come together. “People are astounded by how much you can create with one person. You can really make a 3-D show with one person.”

The character of Tessa – “she’s really determined, really funny and really feisty” says Sheridan – sets an intriguing tone for the show which many walk into thinking will be very dark given the subject matter.

“People know what the show’s about often before they come. So, they often show up very serious and ready to see a serious show, but a lot of the show is actually really witty, and joyous, and buoyant. So, it takes me a bit to sort of warm them up and go “hey, we can laugh.” It’s real life and in real life, tragedy is also very funny.”

Given her background in cabaret, comedy, improv, as well as more serious roles, Sheridan was perfectly prepared to tackle this complex tone.

Arriving in Geelong the same year that saw Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame become formidable forces in the Australian media landscape, this show is accidentally and unflinchingly timely. The show was always running parallel to the wider conversation, says Sheridan. “This show was written before the #MeToo movement. The first day we rehearsed was the first day of the Geoffrey Rush defamation trial, which was very much a potent symbol in our industry.”

Touching on themes of sexual assault, the judicial system, women working in a male-dominated industry and the nepotism and classism that comes from transcending into a vastly different social class, Prima Facie promises to leave audiences thinking long after the final curtain call.

Prima Facie runs from Wednesday, August 18 to Saturday, August 21 at Geelong Arts Centre. Tickets are on sale now via the website.

If this article has raised any issues for you, you can call the Sexual Assault Crisis Line Victoria between 5pm and 9am on 1800 806 292, Sexual Assault Counselling Australia between 8am an 11pm on 1800 211 028, or 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 which open nationwide 24 hours a day.