Suzie Miller: “Don’t give up. If you feel passionate, just keep doing it. There will be knocks and hardships and it is easy to give up along the road. But keep going, you will see it all come together.”
When Prima Facie hits our cinemas next month cinemas as part of NT Live to see Jodie Comer’s sell-out West End debut the play’s writer Suzie Miller will be watching intently to see how it translates from stage to screen. Prima Facie shines a light on the Australian legal system. Around 60,000 people shared in Tessa’s story at the Harold Pinter Theatre – from 21st July the conversation continues with the rest of the world.
We are talking on the telephone, a couple of weeks after Opening Night, in which Comer received rave reviews. “I just think that NT Live is such a wonderful thing, it makes theatre accessible to everyone and is an astonishing leveller and the ultimate invite to experience theatre filmed,” Miller says.
An Australian-British criminal defence lawyer working in the human rights sector, writer Miller witnessed first-hand how the Legal System fails most sexual assault victims. She studied while working as a lawyer and left the bar to be a full-time playwright in 2010.
“The play began when I was studying criminal law and how it is structures and thinking there’s something about the way sexual assault that is doesn’t feel right – as went through my practice in law it continued to come through to me that it just wasn’t working for victims,” Miller tells me.
Due process is everything: “I was and still am committed to the concept of innocence until proven guilty. I also think that sexual assault is a special area that is not necessarily being catered to by a very male focussed legal system.”
At almost 2 hours long and with no interval, the play packs a lot in. Essentially, a play about a lawyer who specialises in defending men accused of sexual assault, until she is assaulted herself: the insecurities she’s faced, heartbreak, sexism, misogyny, being told to look and behave a certain way.
I mention that Comer owned the courtroom; a theatre animal. “Jodie is such an incredible screen actress,” she says with some admiration. “It is astonishing how she stepped out on the stage (Comer had only been in one play before, in Scarborough, when she was 16) and become a theatre actor. I just think that she’s born to do theatre. She is incredible.”
The play, it is fair to say, recieved a mixed reception here; some critics were not enthusiastic about the text itself. In a four-star review, the Evening Standard said: “Suzie Miller’s script is a great vehicle rather than a truly great play, however – shrewd and economical in its analysis of how the system treats assault survivors, but schematic in its plotting.”
The Guardian’s review stated that “[Comer] roars through Suzie Miller’s script. The play roars, too, sometimes too loudly in its polemic, but Comer works overtime to elevate these moments,” and that the script “ falls into a loudly lecturing tone at the end.”
I ask her how the critical and audience responses varied here to the Australia run. She responds pragmatically. “Somehow having a woman stand on stage and make a direct political address within the confines of her story, it is bordering on being a lecture,” she says. “Look at Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird or Mark Rylance’s final speech in Jerusalem. Hailed as mesmerising. It seems to be something that some critics here are not used to. You know you’ve made a difference when the play is not just in the arts pages,” Miller says.
Still, quibbles about polemic do not matter, Prima Facie was one of the hottest tickets in Europe; with Killing Eve star Comer attracting the mythical kind of post West End show frenzy not seen in years – and her legions of teenage fans love her. Truly.
For Miller, though, the idea that someone is consenting unless they tell you that they are not “doesn’t fit with women’s lived experience” and she thinks that “something in the legal system is fundamentally broken.” It is hard to disagree. It becomes clear as we talk that this is a universal issue.
In fact, figures released earlier this year showed that in the 12 months to September 2021, only 1.3% of the 63,136 rape offences recorded by police resulted in a suspect being charged.
“I think what consent runs through everyone’s relationship and what sexual entitlement is and when it should be called out. It can also happen to anyone. So, it’s about a huge change and a group of Barrister’s are going out to schools to talk about consent which is fantastic,” Miller says.
Prima Facie has partnered with The Schools Consent Project and has given away free tickets to 10 partner school groups so that teachers can bring students to see the show and access further ancillary support. Funds have also been donated to support the essential work the charity does to educate young people in the UK about consent.
Set up in 2014 by barrister Kate Parker, The Schools Consent Project is a charity that sends lawyers into schools to teach young people (11–18-year-olds) the legal definition of consent. Their aim is to normalise these sorts of conversations; to empower young people to identify and communicate boundaries, and to respect them in others. To date, they have worked with over 20,000 young people across the country.
Miler believes a rich cultural education is key to changing the world: “It’s fundamental,” she tells me. “Theatre is the town square. It is so important – people can pretend to be other things, whilst an audience breathes in the same emotional mist. I feel like it offers a way of interpreting the world. A writer’s job is to show the paradox of being human. I went to law to change the world and now in theatre I still want to do that and make a difference.”
So which writers inspire her? “Well, growing up I read a lot of Shakespeare. I was mentored by Edward Albee early in my career. All hail mighty Edward. Dennis Kelly, Mike Bartlett, Caryl Churchill and Maria Irene Fornes,”
Looking to the future, Comer will reprise her role in Prima Facie on Broadway. It will have a limited engagement at one of New York’s Shubert theaters, with the exact venue and dates to be announced. “It has been an absolute privilege to tell Tessa’s story here in London over the past few months and to now have the opportunity to take Prima Facie to New York is a dream come true,” said Comer in a recent statement.
In conversation Miller is as tranquil and delightful as she is compellingly eloquent. You’re relatively productive, I add. What’s your secret? “Don’t give up,’ she says quickly. “If you feel passionate, just keep doing it. There will be knocks and hardships and it is easy to give up along the road. But keep going, you will see it all come together.”
Prima Facie is released to cinemas around the world via NT Live and in association with Sky Arts on Thursday 21 July 2022.