The subject here is sexual assault, but don’t think you’re entering a character play. It is an inside-out criminal process, the inside being the life and career of a brash London solicitor, a working-class woman from the north of England, who has reached the top of his profession thanks to his work ethic and his intelligence. The twist engineered by Miller, herself a lawyer, concerns Cambridge-educated Tessa, who defends men accused of perpetrating sexual violence against women.
His not-always-admirable superpower is court-honed prowess and an understanding that the criminal justice system is working against the victim. The law is his accomplice. She punches holes in women’s accounts with the skill of a Savile Row tailor.
Until, of course, the law is her opponent, after a night when Tessa’s world crumbles and all the codes she’s lived through come back to haunt her. The system humiliates him now, with skepticism, harrowing interrogations and threats to his livelihood, his safety, his pride. The contrast between the game’s first and second halves couldn’t be starker. The fragile screen separating the informed high-flyer and the destitute patient irrevocably cracks.
I was captivated when I first saw Comer perform this piece last year in London’s West End. I was even more mesmerized the second time around. The act is prodigious in every respect. Framed by the wall of filing cabinets filled with slipcases by set designer and costume designer Miriam Buether—occasionally illuminated by Natasha Chivers as if they were sacred manuscripts—Comer unfolds Tessa’s nightmare at a frantic pace. A manic energy is apparent, a compulsion to narrate the character’s experience with the precision of a member of London’s Inns of Court.
The performance is relentless in the best sense of the word, a shifting portrayal of accent and personality, as Comer is called upon to play investigators, loved ones, colleagues. Best known for her role as evil Russian assassin Villanelle in “Killing Eve,” Comer is a protean presence with gestural grace and an organic affinity for the stage. You are seduced to believe that there’s nothing this actress can’t do.
Miller gives us just enough incidental information about the British legal system to make us comfortable with how it diverges from American courts; it is mainly a question of grasping the distinction between solicitors and barristers, the latter being the superstars in front of the judges. In popular culture (and as far as I can tell, in real life), their ranks are male-dominated and incredibly macho, invested with the combined egos of heart surgeons and quarterbacks.
The initial elation of “Prima Facie” is to feel Comer channel Tessa’s exuberant spirit into the character’s Souse or Liverpool cadences and her success in defying the expectations of those around her. In a scene at Cambridge University Law School, Tessa is told that one in three students will not graduate; the incorrect assumption is that due to her background, she will be the one. This ratio, however, will become agonizingly relevant later on, once the tables have turned, and Tessa will become a stat in a category she had been too haughty to imagine being inducted into.
How appropriate this subject is for a solo exhibition, even if the scene seems abundantly inhabited. The format incisively illustrates a victim’s sense of isolation – the loneliness of a memory of violation that can isolate us from everyone else. No one can truly share the space where Tessa’s suffering lives. Music by Rebecca Lucy Taylor, in tandem with sound design by Ben and Max Ringham, delivers a soundscape filled with the tensions of a life collapsing and spiraling out of control.
I thought the first time I saw “Prima Facie” that galloping to its captivating conclusion, the impulse to educate an audience became too transparent. I didn’t feel that this time. What Tessa de Comer has to say about her experience needs to be said, repeated and repeated, until the world has changed and ‘Prima Facie’ comes to feel like history, not current events. .
first face, by Suzie Miller. Directed by Justin Martin. Sets and costumes, Miriam Buether; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound, Ben and Max Ringham; music, Rebecca Lucy Taylor; video, Willie Williams. About 100 minutes. At the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York. primafacieplay.com.