Sheridan Harbridge takes on a difficult role

As actor Sheridan Harbridge prepared for the world premiere of primafacie, she attended courts while real trials were taking place. She was fascinated by the theatrical performance: “You watch lawyers advance in their careers. They perform and it’s bombastic and I’ve seen some things I almost got up and clapped.”

But at one point, the reality behind the drama became apparent: “I walked into what I didn’t know was a conviction. The trial was over and this boy was on the stand and the prosecutor was going over his character. I sat down and I was in a room of his crying family. I thought, “I’m entering trespassing.” The stakes were so high.”

That was in 2017, and Harbridge could not have guessed the sensation primafacie would become. Suzie Miller’s play is a woman’s tour de force examining the two sides of the law that Harbridge saw in court. Tessa is a top lawyer who can play a trial like a game of chess until she’s the victim of an attack and experiences the reality of the legal system firsthand.

The play was a hit. After its premiere at Sydney’s Griffin Theatre, it returned for an award-winning tour of Australia ahead of a London production in which Tessa was played by Jodie Comer (kill Eve). Harbridge is back on the show for his Melbourne season at the MTC next month.

Sheridan Harbridge as Tessa:

Sheridan Harbridge as Tessa: “The emotional impact of the show really colors my own daily life.”Credit:Brett Boardman

It’s rare that an actor gets a chance to play the same role twice. Harbridge has performed the role more than 100 times, so she feels an unprecedented sense of technical control. She says that visiting Tessa multiple times in five years is “both wonderful and horrible.”

“In Australia, where we don’t have long seasons, there’s the pleasure of swallowing every word and sentence with ease and saying, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t think I was capable of that skill.’ But on the other hand, instead of getting easier, the show’s emotional impact really colors my own daily life.”

Court dramas are nothing new, however primafacie highlights the pitiful state of sexual assault legislation today. In Australia, only one in 100 such cases results in a conviction. The overwhelming majority are not even reported to the police.

Jodie Comer in the UK production of Prima Facie.

Jodie Comer in the UK production of Prima Facie.Credit:Helen Murray

primafacie asks how, given these numbers, how should we view sexual assault as unlawful? If you had arrived in a culture where 99 percent of killers got away scot-free, wouldn’t you say that its citizens must view murder as an uncomfortable but inevitable fact of life?

Suzie Miller knows her stuff: She was a human rights and criminal defense attorney before turning to theater. And while primafacie is far from a polemic, it makes clear that generations of men have created the laws that govern us.

“I was quite amazed at what lawyers are allowed to say to women under cross-examination.”

Sheridan Harbridge, who stars in the play Prima Facie

It should come as no surprise that these laws reflect the assumptions and prejudices of the kind of men who shaped them, rather than the lived experiences of women.

For this reason, a sexual assault trial most often involves cross-examination of the victim and not the accused.

She (usually she is) will be forced to relive the painful encounter in detail and will be interrogated about what she was wearing, how much she drank, whether her behavior could be responsible for what followed. And after all, reports show she’s unlikely to be believed.

Actress Sheridan Harbridge says Grace Tame (right) and Brittany Higgins have changed perceptions of sexual assault cases.

Actress Sheridan Harbridge says Grace Tame (right) and Brittany Higgins have changed perceptions of sexual assault cases.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“I was quite amazed at what lawyers are allowed to say to women under cross-examination,” says Harbridge. “There are no rules for that. Suzie had many examples. Lawyers hold up G-strings in court and say, “You wore that, what did you think would happen?” You think that can’t be true, but there’s no reason anyone can stop this attorney from asking that question.”

A lot has changed in the five years since the premiere. The #MeToo movement spread across the world, including a series of high-profile cases in the Australian arts landscape.


“When we started doing this in 2017, I remember being desperate and thinking, ‘Oh, this is a play, we’re going to preach to the choir and none of that is ever going to change,'” says Harbridge. “But so much has changed in those five years. It’s moving very quickly and that’s because of people like Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins… it’s changed the way the public talks about sexual assault.”

The theme of the show has a powerful impact on the audience. Occasionally someone steps out and Harbridge is reminded of how close Tessa’s experiences can be to home.

The play is both emotionally and physically taxing for its performer, and over time Harbridge has found the simple tradition of the curtain call to be a crucial means of separating the art from what comes after.

“The ritual of bowing, I know it sounds silly, but until this show I never realized how important it was. That’s the most important thing you can do, a ritual. The story is over and I am stepping out of it.”

primafacie takes place from February 8th to March 25th at the Arts Center Melbourne.

A cultural guide to going out and making love in the city. Sign up for our Culture Fix newsletter here. Sheridan Harbridge takes on a difficult role

Jaclyn Diaz

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