By Nadia Freeman

Prima Facie shares an authentic story of a woman’s experience of assault and navigating the judicial system to seek justice. The nearly sell-out season demonstrates that despite the raw and challenging subject, there is a strong calling for stories like this.  

Rape is a word people don’t want to say, and for this reason a subject not tackled enough in public discussion or art. When sexual assault is portrayed in television, movies etc. the victim all too often aligns to the profile of a perfect damsel in distress.  And frequently the assault is portrayed as being committed by a stranger. 

The reality is eight out of ten rapes are committed by someone the person knows, and a third by their current or former spouse. The trauma and sometimes ongoing abuse impacts on their mental health, relationships, and employment. The sweet, innocent, infallible victim trope is a dangerous rhetoric that causes survivors who don’t fit the profile to be scrutinised.

The writing for the play is exceptional. The story has a fun start as Tessa describes the thrill of courtroom combat. She is confident, perhaps arrogant. She has a dogmatic belief in the fairness of the law.  We the audience are lured into a sense of comradery as she brushes off sentiments of unfairness and successfully secures ‘not guilty’ outcomes for her clients.

Through the unwavering acting of Mel Dodge, we are right there with Tessa the whole time.  I don’t necessarily like Tessa, but I like spending time with her. She is brave and intelligent, she works very hard and puts time into the people around her. 

The pace of the storytelling holds strong thanks to the Directing of Lyndee-Jane Rutherford at no point does it lose my attention.  And the set design appears very simple at first but reveals itself to be extremely impactful.

At times I loved the sound design, the music building up tension and suspense or crafting a sense of space and time. But there were other moments where a noise or sound-effect distracted me from focusing on the dialogue.  And while most of the script held strong, the conflict between Tessa’s professional life and family life in particular her brothers, didn’t add much to the story or character.

The ending sits close to the reality of the system that all assault victims face. This show is a clear cry out to change the system from the needs of those accused, to that of supporting victims. The story speaks for itself and for this reason I don’t think it needed the final closing monologue.

Overall Prima Facie presents a top-class production and the result of a team that works like a well-oiled machine.  A credit to Kavanah Productions & BRAVE Theatre for presenting this important work and bringing the show to New Zealand audiences.

With only 7% of rape in NZ reported to the Police, Prima Facie is an important story that is already making an impact. The show is now a mandatory viewing for high court judges in Northern Ireland before they sit on the bench.  In New Zealand, lawyers get two Continuing Professional Development points if they see this production. Art can and does make an impact.

I would like to see more presentations like it  and more diversity in the stories told. As one in four women has experienced sexual assault, it affects women of all cultures and economic backgrounds and stories of marginalised groups also need to be heard.