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A prima facie case for change

Warning: This editorial discusses sexual assault.

On Friday night I watched one of the most staggering and brilliant pieces of theatre I think I have ever witnessed: Prima Facie by Australian-British playwright Suzie Miller.

It’s a one-woman show that – thanks to sponsorship from local law firm Gawith Burridge – made a one-night pit stop at Carterton Events Centre as part of its New Zealand tour.

To say award-winning actress Mel Dodge ‘plays’ criminal defence lawyer Tessa in Prima Facie is to underestimate her performance completely.

It’s more of an inhabitation.

For nearly two hours – and 50,000 words – Dodge held the sell-out audience in thrall amid a sparse and stylish set.

At a visceral, almost relentless pace, we initially delight in Tessa’s professional success climbing the legal ladder, wonder at her apparent limitless energy, and marvel at her dance moves.

Tessa is funny, sassy, scrappy, clever, brave.

She’s exactly the kind of defence lawyer you’d pay good money to have in your corner.

And then, the fall.

Miller subtly signals the pain, anguish, and shame that will come to Tessa throughout the first half of her script, which lands like chills along the spine.

The booze, the nightclub dancing, the cigarettes on the balcony, the [consensual] sex in the office.

As a woman watching Dodge’s mesmerizing performance, I felt at a cellular level that Tessa’s freedom could not last, that it would come at a cost.

That cost is her violation.

In Prima Facie, Miller – a former criminal barrister herself, shines a light on the criminal justice system – and it is not a pretty sight.

The persistent horror of female sexual assault and the cruelty of the legal system is laid bare through Tessa’s own agonizing journey to secure justice against her perpetrator, also a barrister.

Looking at the latest statistics for sexual assault, it’s little wonder that I [and surely countless others] experienced such feelings of dread and foreboding while watching Prima Facie.

As the show’s director, Lyndee-Jane Rutherford, told the audience in an after-show Q&A, 30 per cent of women in Australia and New Zealand are sexually assaulted, and nine out of every 10 sexual assaults are not reported to police. Of those few that are reported, nine in 10 end up with no conviction, and 99 cases out of 100 don’t make it through the legal system.

Let that sink in: It’s 2024, and one in three women are sexually assaulted in Aotearoa.

In the same week I was held in Dodge’s spell, I heard former journalist Alison Mau and campaigner barrister Zoe Lawton talking to Sharon Brettkelly on RNZ’s “The Detail” podcast, discussing Tika, their charity to “tackle the persistently low rates of sexual assault reporting in Aotearoa”.

Like Tessa, Tika is bold, clever, and brave: An online platform combining “high tech and legal expertise” allowing victims or survivors of sexual assault to register securely online, and “have the software search the database for a ‘match’ on anyone who has been harmed by the same perpetrator”, explained Mau.

“They’ll then be able to take group action with the help of Tika’s specialist lawyers, for free.”

It’s early days for Tika, but surely, female sexual assault is a prima facie case for embracing courageous new ideas.

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