Playwright Suzie Miller on ‘Prima Facie’

Article | Issue: Oct 2023

 

SUZIE MILLER’S work has been produced around the world winning multiple prestigious awards, including the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play 2023, for her smash hit one-woman play ‘Prima Facie’, which had a sold out season on London’s West End and opened on Broadway in New York, April 2023.

Good Reading chatted to Suzie about adapting her play into a book of the same name, Prima Facie.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

Tessa is a thoroughbred. A young, brilliant barrister from a working-class background now at the top of her game: defending, cross-examining and lighting up the shadows of doubt in any case. The law is a game and she is its most talented player.

One sickening night, though, Tessa finds herself in a position countless women – one in three – have been in before her. And she’s faced with a gut-wrenching, life-changing decision. Will she take the stand to testify about her rape, with the full awareness that the system has not been built to protect her?

Drawn from the internationally acclaimed play, Prima Facie is a propulsive, raw look at the price victims pay for speaking out and the system that sets them up to fail. With breakneck prose and a devastating emotional intensity, this is a novel for our times, by one of Australia’s most impressive writers.

 

 

Q&A WITH SUZIE MILLER

Suzie Miler author and playwright

Q&A WITH SUZIE MILLER

 

Your latest novel Prima Facie was adapted from your award-winning play – what inspired
your foray into writing a novel?

Having written for years in theatre and screen, I was often asked to write a novel. While I toyed with the idea and loved the thought of being able to stretch out into a long form story, I had so many plays, films and TV series lined up – some of which were based upon plays I had written. There are a group of Australian women writers who I am in a ‘salon’ with – a brains’ trust of extraordinarily successful and generous women – I am the only playwright, they are mostly novelists and memoir writers, and they encouraged me to write a novel.

I had so much material on Prima Facie after writing the novel, and while I was writing the film script, I accessed all of the previous drafts with scenes and thoughts that couldn’t fit into the play. It was exciting to open up that trove of documents and know I could bring them into a longer form. To dig in deeper with my character Tessa.

 

How did the process of writing this novel compare to that of your play?

It’s such a different process – like stretching out on a long summer’s day in the warmth. You are allowed to go deeply into the mind of the character. I relished having the opportunity to flesh out not only Tessa but other characters also. When one writes for theatre, every line must do three things – be propulsive, offer characterisation, provide tension, and built towards something that will pay off later dropping small seemingly insignificant seeds throughout that are tied to other aspects. In a novel one can do all of this, and also lean in and interrogate what is behind each of the moments.

In the novel I felt I could dream a little more deeply, give my characters a stronger voice, a voice that was speaking to the reader themselves. There are only 90 minutes to two hours generally in theatre, whereas for the novel I know the reader is investing more time. I wanted it to be a novel people felt an intimacy with the character of Tessa, understood her class and background and knew more of her family and background.

Writing a novel is in a strange way easier than writing for theatre. In the theatre there is so much dramaturgy and mise en scene to consider, whereas once you find the voice for your main character in the novel, a writer can write into that. The novel is not going to be performed so the writer is reaching to the edges of the imagination of the reader, and I find that a different yet wholly satisfying experience.

 

Prima Facie has a lot to say about the structural failures of the legal system and misogyny in
the modern world. How and why did you want to address those themes?

Even when we believe that we are moving forward in systems – and we are – by appointing women and allowing their perspective to shape cases and our community, we are also surrounded by misogyny. Scratch the surface and the modern world is threatened by women and their voices.

Even beneath those of us who are feminists there are areas that are murky in what we don’t see about the way we are shaped and our own patriarchal voice inherent in various discussions. If we look at so much we take for granted through a feminist lens it is shocking what we see. Even young men are suffering from the gendered ideas that the patriarchy has dictated.

To be providers and workers, to have to have certain traits that make you strong and not too much emotion. But for women there is so much danger that has sprung from patriarchal systems and ways of thinking. Women do not believe other women because they take on the same critique as the patriarchy they grew up within.

Simple example is that I do not know a single woman who feels safe walking back from the train station late at night. We all have our keys and phones at the ready, always hypervigilant, and selfblaming for taking the risk in walking home in the dark. The fear women have is that they will be raped and murdered. Every woman still feels that, walks in fear. Any night, and sometimes any day, anywhere in the world. What they are scared of is being attacked by a man.

 

Prior to writing, you studied law and worked as a human rights lawyer. How did these experiences influence Prima Facie?

My background was in the law. When I was at law school at UNSW, I did an exchange year in Canada where I was so lucky to make contact with the renowned feminist legal scholar Catherine Mackinnon. She came down from NY and visited the law campus of the University of Toronto, and she changed my world view.

While I already identified strongly as a feminist, even a feminist cannot always see the gendered notion of all the structures that surround them. I had read Ms Mackinnon’s work in the past, but hearing her talk in Toronto and allow her feminist theory to interrogate the legal system as we know it was mind-blowing. That everything has been designed by the patriarchy to suit the patriarchy and to make sure that the power structure, run by men, did not topple.

Often, I was the first person their social workers took them to for the purposes of making a statement and applying for some victims’ compensation to allow for counselling

Sexual assault and rape law was designed by men when women were the property of men so the crime was often against the man who ‘owned’ by marriage the woman who allegedly was raped. There were so many things that were back to front and that had been defined and not interrogated appropriately.

There were cases where it was hard to believe that they had been heard the way they had been and that the women had not been believed. Then I was a criminal justice and human rights lawyer, one of my jobs for that period was to take statements from young women who had been sexually assaulted and raped. These were different types of rapes, of young girls by foster fathers, fathers, stepfathers, brothers; to young women on dates, to women drunk at parties who were then gang raped, and more.

Often, I was the first person their social workers took them to for the purposes of making a statement and applying for some victims’ compensation to allow for counselling. In each of these 100s and 100s of statements, there was such similarity of reporting the event, and the way the victim responded, managed to survive and endure it, and yet I could count on one hand the ones who reached a conviction at court.

I was shocked at the figures and was shocked at how few the police prosecuted. I was also devastated on behalf of my clients because their lives often fell apart after the rapes, they were victimised again by the system or by society in general blaming them or not believing them.

 

Did you draw on your own personal experiences to help shape any of the characters or scenes in your novel?

Definitely drew on my own personal experiences to both shape the experience of acting for clients in court and being part of the go-go-go cohort that is young criminal lawyers. They are a different breed to corporate lawyers, always ready to jump and rush into a courtroom, thinking on their feet and often not relying on papers as much as instinct, legal knowledge, and the performance of various people in the courtroom.

I also gave Tessa some of my experiences in life, but more than anything, I gave Tessa the feeling of being a woman on the outside. I was someone who didn’t know a lawyer before I went to university. My parents did not graduate from universities, rather my mum left school in Year 9 and my father did a diploma after school while working at the Heinz Tomato Soup Factory. My grandparents were tradies, and I was the first in my family to go to university. It was difficult to go to university and realise that other people had very different lives, parents with highly intellectual professions, or vocations, and even PhDs.

I had the most amazing mother though, while she was not educated, she was charismatic and never stopped striving. She was the ‘finder of ways’ and that really templated for me that you never give up. She showed me that if I worked really hard and gave it my all, I could pretend and watch others to figure out how things are done until I knew for sure how to do them.

 

Can you discuss any challenges you faced while writing Prima Facie?

I had never worked with an editor before, and in the novel of Prima Facie I had three editors at least working with me at any one time. The novel is first coming out in Australia, so I had my Australian editor, plus my US and UK editors. The interesting thing about this for me was what notes each editor offered and how I realised some of the notes. There were different nuances and understandings about parts of the text, and it was interesting and challenging to make them all as similar as possible while allowing for the uniquely different readership of each.

While I practiced for nearly two decades as a lawyer in Australia, I have not practiced as a lawyer in the UK. This meant I had to go to courts and discover small details for the novel that I did not have to use in the play. I also wanted the novel to talk to all readers, that meant I wanted the character of Tessa not to be labelled as one particular culture.

It was an interesting exercise, and I had some fabulous consultants from the Old Bailey in London to assist in this regard. My closest friends at the bar in London is a Black British woman and a Northern Irish Judge of the Old Bailey, previously a KC; it has been incredible having them by my side and commenting throughout.

 

One in three women are victims of sexual assault and yet most cases never see a conviction.
Why do you think that is, and what can be done to change this?

This is the most important question and I think about it often. Legal systems have traditionally been peopled /staffed by the most elite of the community and as such have no understanding of how others live. In particular the law has been shaped by generations and generations of upper class, wealthy, heterosexual men. So, this is how our laws have evolved.

The sexual assault laws of Britain have not been interrogated for over 20 years. The general community has also been educated socially under this patriarchal system and the reframing of sexual assault and rape as being the fault of the victim is commonplace in that narrative. So the problem is in the system and also right
throughout society. When the greatest incidence of violence is femicide and rape against women the numbers speak for themselves.

However traditionally the he said/she said form of evidence provided in rape cases, and the adversarial system designed to cross examine and accuse a witness of lying when they speak up about rape has meant that women are not believed. Even by other women. The police often do not consider the aspects suffered by a rape victim and the demeanour of the person providing a statement is often taken into account as to their believability.

By its nature sexual assault and rape have no witnesses other than the two people involved. There has only been recent acknowledgement that to ‘freeze’ is a survival method and a fear method employed by women being raped, rather than it being read as a form of consent. And consent is seen traditionally as something that exists until such time as it is taken away. This is a very gendered view.

The legal system says that if a person reasonably believes that the other person was consenting, then they cannot be held accountable for rape or sexual assault. But why do we assume consent? Can we not be expected to ask for it? Or have it confirmed? That is not such a big thing to do. And yet once it is in court it is two people’s words against each other. One horrible issue is that the victim/survivor must give evidence to make the case for the prosecution, while the defence does not even have to provide evidence.

Interestingly in Australia – in some states – there are now rules that require active consent. This is a big change but does not solve the problem of it being one person’s word against one other person’s word.

Rape culture starts with conversations at home, with our children, that define respect and concern for others, and that encourage empathetic actions. In this manner people will grow to realise that what they think is happening is not necessarily the experience of other people, and that their needs to not override the needs of others.

There are many court reforms that are proposed: sexual assault specialist courts so victims are not retraumatised, circle punishment where the matter is removed from the courts and a victim can be heard with apologies and rehabilitation put in place. Current low levels of conviction often illustrate that people do not believe women – it is an easy thing to demolish a woman in the witness box when she is trying to remember an extraordinarily traumatic event.

Given it is easier to run the case in a court of law and get off without conviction, it does make one wonder if anyone would agree to a diverted system where they would admit they did something wrong.

 

Prima Facie is getting a film adaptation – what can you tell us about this?

The film is being produced by Bunya Productions in Australia and Participant Media in Hollywood. Participant Media are known for Spotlight, Greenbook, Roma and other hard-hitting films – their ideas are to change the world one story at a time. I love that about them.

The film is a departure from the play insofar as the casting is very different. Jodie Comer played Tessa in a gruelling two years on stage (she won both the Olivier and the Tony for her performance) and in the play the interrogation was gender and class. In order to make the film something different to the play, and to have it move forward from the play meant we wanted to push it to interrogating race.

We have Cynthia Arivo acting as Tessa, and also feeding into the storyline. This has been brilliant for us all, and under the direction of the brilliant Susanna White we are excited what the film will become. It is consistent with my wanting the novel to speak to every woman.

There are so many people who continue to write to me to say the play and Tessa has changed them, healed them in ways I could never expect, and now a cohort of criminal barristers have created the TESSA Project (The Examination of Serious Sexual Assault law) and another Old Bailey judge has called me to inform me she has used words from the play in redrafting the overall direction to the juries to be used in all UK rape and sexual assault trials. This makes me feel that art can really change lives, and stories can engage with people and if they respond they make changes themselves that have enormous affect. I hope the film has even greater reach and expression. Once the SAG strike is over, we shall go into shooting it.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suzie Miller is a contemporary international playwright, librettist and screenwriter drawn to complex human stories often exploring injustice. She has often been described as a courageous writer and won the Australian Writers’ Guild and Kit Denton Fellowship for Writing with Courage in 2008.

Born in Melbourne Australia, she now resides between London UK and Sydney Australia. Miller has been produced around the world winning multiple prestigious awards. Her most recent play Prima Facie (premiered 2019, Griffin Theatre) won the 2020 Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Drama; the 2020 David Williamson Award for Outstanding Theatre Writing; and the 2020 prestigious Major Australian Writers’ Guild Award across all categories of theatre, film and television. Its premier production earned 5-star reviews across all platforms.

Australian/British Suzie has a background in law and science, and is currently developing major theatre, film and television projects across the UK, USA and Australia. Suzie worked as a human rights lawyer and a children’s rights lawyer before leaving the law and moving to London in 2010 with her young family to pursue a theatre writing career full time and she now resides between both London and Sydney.

Visit Suzie Miller’s website

Author: Suzie Miller

Category:

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Picador Australia

ISBN: 9781761262258

RRP: $34.99

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