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Jodie Comer's play Prima Facie has an uncomfortable twist in the tale

Prima Facie starring Jodie Comer exposes an unconscionable truth about the UK legal system

Jodie Comer in Prima Facie

Jodie Comer’s one-hander performance goes in a very unexpected by thought-provoking direction. Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images

Prima Facie, according to the dictionary, means ‘at first appearance’; self-evident, obvious. And this is the term that playwright Suzie Miller has used for the title of her courtroom drama.

Played by Jodie Comer, it is a 90-minute one-hander, not a monologue, but a play that is skilfully handled by a single actor.

I went to the press night last week expecting nothing in particular because I wasn’t feeling like a West End night out. My mind was too full of matters like ‘it’s very expensive to keep people poor’, and the fact that I had just finished a silent retreat.

The play seemed initially to be a portrait of a comprehensive school girl making her way inexorably towards some high point in her chosen career of law.

Everything looked to be swimming along. She excels as a student, and then as a junior barrister; and then onto the big stuff. She is courted by other lawyers’ chambers because of her incredible ability to deliver successful outcomes.

I imagined the denouement would be her realisation that success was all a big con. And how you have to become soulless in the process. She describes the simple point that the person you represent is the ‘be all and end all’ of the business. You don’t even reflect on the fact that they might be guilty as sin. 

It was good stuff, methinks, but predicable; until suddenly it all changes. Drinks at her place with a fellow barrister. And then it all falls to pieces.

This is not a play about the rise of an incredibly talented and determined barrister who scales the heights of the class dominated, arse-licking world of law. Rather it is a story about rape. And rape taking place between two formerly consenting adults.

About 10 years ago Helena Kennedy – barrister, campaigner, Labour Party peer, broadcaster and big noise for social justice – introduced me to the ‘law of unintended consequences’. Until I read an article by her in The Observer, I had never heard of the term. But in it she made a ‘mea culpa’, an admission of making a mistake. 

In her younger years she had campaigned to protect the rights of the accused. The accused had often been bullied into confessing, and she did a salutary job of protecting their rights. 

The problem, as she said a few decades later, was that one of the reasons we have so few rape prosecutions is because the protections that she helped bring about are used so assiduously. In other words, the ‘law of unintended consequences’ ruled, because those accused of rape could easily hide behind the protections she had helped sculpt.

It was a very brave thing for Helena to admit and I have admired her honesty ever since. If we had more of this admitting to our mistakes we might have a more believable political system.

The play demonstrates so clearly how incredibly difficult it is to prosecute rape cases. Only 1.3 per cent of rape accusations are prosecuted. Some 41 per cent of rape victims withdraw their support for a prosecution within three months. The average time between offence and trial is 1,020 days, during which the victim often suffers a constant feeling that their everyday life has been suspended.

I do not want to spoil the plot and the piece by an over-description of what is achieved in the 90 minutes; but if anything, it is an indictment of a legal world that is almost exclusively male. That is based almost exclusively on not understanding what women who have suffered rape actually go through, if that is possible.

But more than anything, it is about how often the confusion that can be caused by rape in the mind of the victim means the trauma cannot be carefully and dispassionately reconstructed in a courtroom environment. And reconstructing the details of the ‘event’ causes new and deeper trauma.

I left the theatre not entertained. I was not there for that. I was there to be informed, to be taken into the mind of a rising young barrister breaking up on the rocks of a vile rape. It left me with an overwhelming feeling that, for me, underlines a terrible indictment to be levelled at our legal system.

That its view of the world is not inclusively ‘human’. It is male; for it excludes half the species in its structures and systems, as most rape victims are girls or women. 

In other words, being accused of rape, and being known to be at the scene of the crime, is very, very, very unlikely to lead to a prosecution and punishment for the acts that are carried out. There must be few other crimes that leave the victim so unprotected, and left so unserved of justice.

I recommend that you see this play at the Harold Pinter Theatre if you get the chance. 

Hopefully it will go on for a long run, be filmed and put out there as a profoundly moving example of theatre as a sharp knife, spotlighting clearly the blunt instrument that is our legal system around rape. 

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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