Emoji summary: 👩🏼⚖️🆘🌀
We leave the pictures and all the summer light from earlier in the day has been cemented into a heavy, charcoal sky. The heatwave finally gave up today – thank god – and now a storm is coming in. I’m okay. Relieved, maybe. I’m feeling happy but quiet. Glad to be outside even in this suddenly tense air. I keep thinking to myself: I’m a critic, I should be saying clever things to honour the artwork I’ve just seen that made me feel this way. But the quietness is like cultural shell shock and I revel in it, waiting for thoughts and feelings to cement themselves with the same heaviness and relief as the sky.
I have gone to see the National Theatre Live recording of the 2022 production of Prima Facie with my boyfriend’s mum. On the car ride home, she looks out at the road ahead and says that Jodie Comer is the actress of her generation. I nod. It feels obvious to us both, it feels true. We drive alongside the blue and orange of the Albert Docks and climb up the hill that is Liverpool. She runs a quick, honest errand while I wait in the car, still spinning. When she drops me home, I think that I will open a word document and make notes for a review to get the spinning to stop – but I have to reheat my dinner, and then do the washing up, feed the cat, reply to some messages, and carry on with the normal, continuous life that happens outside of art. I remain quiet. Two weeks will pass before I sit down to write anything, because for two weeks I have no idea what to tell people, other than the fact that Jodie Comer is the actress of her generation, obviously.
I look at this review and at the first two paragraphs I’ve written so far. No, I never say ‘the cinema.’ That was a lie. Nobody I know here in Liverpool says ‘the cinema.’ Everyone calls the place you see films ‘the pictures.’ I know that plenty of non-posh people across the country say ‘cinema’ but in my ears, it is posh. Too long at three syllables, I hate that optional ‘mar’ sound at the end of it. Ci-ne-mar. It slopes down somewhere embarrassing, formal, even royal; it’s mama instead of yer ma, and for that reason, I cannot stand it. I never say cannot either, only can’t. And my ma told me off growing up for saying ‘me’ instead of ‘my’ – so that should be me ma told me off instead. Pass me jacket. Can I have me dinner now? The word processor I’m typing this on is underlining everything scouse to spite me.
I wrote ‘the pictures’ in the opening line to this review knowing full well that my primarily London-based, largely international audience might need the clarification later on in the paragraph. Well, no, what I actually did was write ‘cinema’ first and ‘pictures’ second, and then I swapped them because I realised I wasn’t being honest and because honesty is what I’m thinking about now after seeing Prima Facie. Specifically, honesty in the way that we speak and hear one another. I think that has to include honesty in the way that I write.
Prima Facie, written by Suzie Miller and directed on this occasion by Justin Martin, is a play about a talented barrister. It’s a one-woman play and when it was on at the Harold Pinter theatre in London, that woman was Jodie Comer. The Liverpool actress, most known for her role as Villanelle in Killing Eve, made her West End debut playing Tessa, a barrister ‘who has worked her way up from working class origins to be at the top of her game.’
And this girl fucking loves her job. She’s good at it, too. It feels like sport to her. Before seeing this, I couldn’t precisely tell you what a barrister did. A barrister is a lawyer that presents a case in court to the judge and jury. They can work for both the prosecution and the defence, and they’re the ones who wear wigs and robes because, you know, court is theatrical too.
It is a complicated job that requires close knowledge of the law and quick-thinking to clinch a successful result. A successful result is based on what the client wants. For example, if Tessa’s client is pleading not guilty then she doesn’t want to know if he really did the crime or not. It’s her job to present his case and get him off. That’s that. There’s a scene where she tells her Mum, ‘I won a case today’ and her Mum says, ‘Ah, you got more criminals out on our streets then did ya?’ Unimpressed and even ashamed. Tessa monologues that it’s not her job to prove the truth of the matter. She’s not a detective. A barrister simply needs to present just enough evidence, ask questions in just the right way, or uncover just enough doubt so that they are able to establish ‘a legal truth’ that sways the jury in a way that wins the case. Kinda fucked up? Yeah, kinda fucked up.
And I should already know this but hearing the process of the law laid out in these terms was jarring. I assumed that courts work their way towards truth, honesty, reality… but they’re not. Because there’s what really happened, and then there’s the situation a barrister is able to present to the court. There’s the way a barrister is able to point out something doubtful and unravel a case from there. It’s a spin job. It’s storytelling. It’s theatre. And at the beginning of the play, this blurriness is the opposite of an issue – it’s a challenge more than anything. A fun problem to solve. A game to win. Tessa’s character has made peace with the moral side of things. She believes that ‘if a few guilty people get off then it’s because the job was not done well enough by the prosecutor and the police.’ Nothing to do with her. And anyway, she’s busy getting constant praise at work. She’s getting offers, opportunities. She’s winning all of her cases all of the time. She’s too busy feeling good.
That is, until the world flips upside down, slows down, and then completely stops.
Tessa gets off with another barrister in the office. He’s well-to-do, Dad’s in the Queen’s Counsel. It’s a giddy night. They end up going on a proper date and things are going well. Dinner and drinks and sex. But then vomiting. Drunk? Was it the food? Drugged? What? This man carries her weak body away from the toilet she’s been vomiting into and then he rapes her in her own bed. When he finally falls asleep, she gets up and showers. Out of her body and mind, she cleans the living room. He’s sleeping soundly and she’s freaking out. She stumbles outside. She walks and walks. She gets a taxi to a police station, completely lost for words. She’s never lost for words. Her career depends on her being good at words. It dawns on Tessa that she has become the witness and the man still sleeping in her bed is the defendant. She realises she is going to have to prosecute him. How do you prosecute another barrister? He’ll find a way to get out of it. She feels sick. She feels stupid for showering. She feels stupid for cleaning the flat.
Tessa makes a statement to the police and worries about what it is she is supposed to say, knowing her statement and her state of being are evidence that will later be used in court; evidence that might be used against her if she doesn’t play her cards right. She’s never been on this side of the game, and now she’s here she’s not sure she’s any good at it. I mean, she shouldn’t need to be. She’s just been raped. Most women aren’t versed in the legal system that Tessa happens to know so well; most rapists aren’t this versed in the legal system as well. And isn’t the ‘legal system’ supposed to be a thing that protects us?
But then she knows court cases are not about what really happened. They’re about framing a legal truth and presenting it to a jury, and if the evidence is gone, well, it’s gone. If the evidence is gone, then that leaves a blurry, hollow space that can be filled with reasonable doubt. She knows people from the restaurant will be able to testify that she looked happy on their date, because… she was happy. If she didn’t do enough to prove she didn’t want to have sex, then it’s just her word against his. And who’s she anyway? She’s the working class nobody who’s desperate for a career, and he’s the powerful man from a powerful family who has everything to lose.
I felt sick watching all of this play out. I should have known what was coming, braced for the whiplash. The tears were stiff in my eyes, and I knew that if I had watched this on my own and not in the pictures alongside the general public, I would have been a mess. I would have been loud. The writing, Comer’s performance, the way I forgot that this was theatre – and not even live theatre but a recorded version flattened onto a screen. I felt like she was Tessa, like she had really been hurt; like the problem was so big that none of us could solve or survive it. And that’s why I left that night with nothing to say. My sense of reality had changed on a granular level, having seen the racket of our legal system from this expert perspective. I was quietly processing this new, old, more real world where justice does not exist; where danger is simply allowed to be dangerous; where the people who are supposed to know the answers don’t have them anymore, and the hero is looking directly at me and telling me to run.
I knew it was bad. But I only knew that it was bad, I hadn’t felt it. The friends I know who have been raped never took it to the police or the courts because they didn’t have any faith, any energy. The homepage for Prima Facie’s website is full of statistics that reflect that. ‘In the nine months to September 2021 there was 170,973 recorded sexual offences; of these 37% were rapes; nearly 33% of rape victims withdraw their complaint in the first three months of it being recorded. In the first nine months of 2021, the average time between offence and court hearing is 1,020 days, or over 2 and a half years. And after that only 1.3% of rapes are prosecuted.’ 1.3. And think of all the sexual offences that aren’t reported. It is one thing to read statistics, another to live them; and something else peripheral and burning to witness this very real information stretched over art, like some small, broken, alone, little thing protecting itself in a foetal position.
It was the barrister’s perspective that gutted me. It was the cold education that left me stunned. But other critics have covered that. This is context for everybody who hasn’t gone through it. What I really want to write about is the writing or, rather, the performance of the script. Because yeah, I felt sick watching this play, but I wonder if I actually felt more impressed than sick, and I wonder if that is because Jodie Comer is obviously the actress of her generation and it’s like this play was written for her.
Throughout Prima Facie, the writing and speech switch with these hard, fast motions like knuckles being cracked right next to your ear. The play starts out with Tessa’s fast-paced winning voice full of energy. Breathing invisible, absolutely high on life. Loves her job, loves the fight. Comer speaks at a million miles an hour in this sort of over-the-top southern voice. She isn’t playing a London character and it doesn’t sound like she is trying and failing at a London accent; there’s a clever space between the character’s truth and the voice she is putting on at the beginning of the story, like it’s a costume, a suit for an important interview; tongue and teeth touching the ends of words in a way that isn’t quite natural for the typical Liverpool voice.
The script then slides in and out of the grand performance of barristers in their fancy dress on the courtroom floor and it’s a deeper speech, pronunciations exacting, sentences measured. Vocabulary rich and specific. It’s like a default important voice, what you might imagine if Times New Roman could talk.
And when Tessa briefly visits home, gets her Mum a bottle of fanta on the way there and has a fight with her brother, she sounds like someone else again: character and actress revealed. It’s a Scouse accent. Casual, ends of words are gone, no longer needed. She has my favourite type of Liverpudlian accent where the Ds aren’t sharp, but dull and soft like humming; and the other consonants are pressed together so that her voice is smooth, optimistic, high-pitched. Sort of girly, up and down and singing. She does the other Scouse thing I love as well, where she talks fast when she begins a sentence and then slows down at the end of it. It’s as though she is constantly in a state of telling herself and everyone around her to calm down, she’ll sort it out, she’s got this, she knows best.
So, when Tessa is at work, she uses that brushed up faux-Southern English accent. When Tessa is at home and when Tessa is being raped, when she is in pieces at the police station, dealing with the fallout, or seeking comfort in her Mum, she speaks in her real voice as a scouser. It’s so interesting to me. A lot of people associate Jodie Comer with accents because she cycles through them with ease as Villanelle. It’s gotten to the point where there are endless YouTube compilations of Comer doing different accents across her acting portfolio, and she’s always asked about them in interviews. People are so impressed with her skill, and I agree, it’s an impressive skill.
But in other scripts, it can come off as a bit of a party trick now given her profile. Another accent to conquer. In the script for Prima Facie, Comer speaking in different accents feels like a more relevant, sincere and genuinely artistic use of that skill. It becomes a part of the narrative. Remember, she’s the only person on stage but through code-switching, we witness how her class identity is being pulled in multiple directions because of the field she’s in. We feel the tension there, we hear it. We also sense how that tension starts to let go of her after the attack, as if a performance of class doesn’t seem to matter anymore in the grand scheme of things because so much has already been taken from her. It’s not that she has relaxed into herself, it’s more like she is all she has left. If before, speaking properly was a part of class assimilation and therefore an attempt to survive in these grand settings, then after, she knows that speaking properly did nothing to protect her.
We have these threads running the play and through the actress, too. The work of the barrister is to find the legal truth; the work of the story is to fight on behalf of the truth; and the work of an accent is to reveal a personal, social truth (or to hide one).
Years ago, when I was still doing an Art Foundation and everyone I went to school with was in their first year of uni, I went to visit a friend who’d gotten into Oxford. It was a bizarre encounter because any trace of Liverpool that had been in her body and soul had gone. She never announced that she’d decided to change her accent, and it made me feel so uncomfortable being in her presence because I was just supposed to go along with it? I felt really angry in a way I didn’t quite have the words for, but now I know it’s because my voice had become a faux pas by default, and I dreaded meeting her friends.
It’s mad. The Liverpool accent has a terrible reputation. It continues to signal low intelligence, low class, and criminal affiliations to people outside of this city (and to some within it) because the people who produce media in this country are fucking idiot tories who have decided the way someone speaks gives them value, when it really shouldn’t. According to our English cultural imaginary, there’s a right way to speak and there’s a wrong one, because there’s a right way to behave – a way that indicates respectability, aspiration, goodness, and a well-read academic mind. It’s all a farce, of course. Not that I ever say ‘farce’ in real life, but you get the point. You don’t hear many scouse accents in popular culture and when they are there, the writing usually upholds all of this old-fashioned stigma which is just so boring to me. It’s like, how is this still a thing?
So, I really loved the way Jodie Comer was allowed to perform this character. The use of accents in Prima Facie made the subject more vulnerable when we needed to see that in her. It pushed the theme of honesty to the front of the stage as she would speak up and mask her voice, but then drop the act in an instant and talk normally again. These accents filled the stage when there was only one person on there. It gave Tessa’s characterisation huge range, and it helped the final act land when we needed to snap out of the fiction and face reality. What I will say about the scouse accent is that it has such a good capacity for harshness. Scraping quickly across sounds to be straightforward, like there’s no time to mess about or dress these things up. The play uses that to lay down its themes and it works – I felt the performance vibrate through me.
I think about my voice when I write these texts. I wonder if this written voice is my most honest presentation, because I have time to think and edit everything until the words look how I want them to. Or is it dishonest because I never speak this well, this completely, in person. I think about it when I record these texts for the podcast and for YouTube. Sometimes, a few minutes in, I’ll follow the lead of my writing and find myself speaking in a formal way that I wouldn’t use with friends. I stop, I imagine one of my cousins is sitting next to me, and then I press record again.
Jodie Comer brought the story very close to home. Liverpool actress, Liverpool audience, Liverpool pictures. Suzie Miller is an Australian playwright and the play premiered there with a different cast and crew, but I don’t know Australian accents well enough so I don’t think I could have felt the same depth when it came to class and vulnerability in those original performances. Next year, the show is going to Broadway and Comer is going with it. I wonder if American audiences might miss out in the same way; I wonder if her skills will translate and I wonder if this constructed class position of Liverpudlians is felt outside the country. Jodie Comer is the actress of her generation and that feels obvious to me. I hope more people see this play, or the recording of it, so that it becomes obvious to them too.
- if you read to the end, please comment a rose emoji 🌹 on the instagram post and i dare you to tag jodie comer so it’s like we are all throwing roses at her during a standing ovation
- and if you want to keep thinking about this, Read a 2019 review of the play when it was having its premiere run in Sydney with a different cast and crew