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Prima Facie loses some punch on the way from stage to print

Prima Facie
Suzie Miller
Picador, $34.99

Before it was ever a novel, Prima Facie was a one-woman play with a lot of push. It premiered in Sydney in 2019 and went on to galvanise audiences around the world with the urgency of its message about the iniquity of a justice system in which the complainant in a case of alleged sexual assault – rather than the accused – is put on trial and subjected to the indignity of a public interrogation.

Australian actor Sheridan Harbridge starred in the premiere season of Prima Facie.

Australian actor Sheridan Harbridge starred in the premiere season of Prima Facie.Credit: Brett Boardman

Written by Suzie Miller, a lawyer turned playwright, the story is narrated by a charismatic criminal defence barrister who made her reputation defending men accused of rape. Her world is turned inside out and wrong way around when she herself is raped by a colleague. She knows it won’t be an easy case to prove – her word against his – but she decides to press charges. She wants to believe the law works for victims as well as those wrongly accused. It is, after all, the system to which she has dedicated her life.

The trial, of course, doesn’t go well. The point Miller wants to make with this ironic reversal of fortune is that even someone who understands what will happen – even an expert in criminal law who knows barristers and all the tricks of cross-examination – even she can too easily be made to seem confused and unsure of herself. The system, Miller declares, must be reformed.

Suzie Miller’s novel is really an extended film treatment of her play, Prima Facie, written in the first person.

Suzie Miller’s novel is really an extended film treatment of her play, Prima Facie, written in the first person.Credit: Kate Geraghty

Prima Facie is the sort of play that reminds you that once upon a time the theatre was a serious moral institution and a powerful force for the propagation of ideas. More than that, however, Prima Facie is a remarkable vehicle for a star performer. It’s rapid and insistent, with a final prose aria that culminates in rage and frustration and steely resolution.

Now Miller has knocked together a less than satisfactory novelisation of her own script. The text of the original is still there, dutifully copied over, but it’s spoiled with a lot of lifeless detail and tedious backstory. For anyone who has seen the play – performed by Sheridan Harbridge in Australia, or Killing Eve star Jodie Comer in London and New York – this scrappy bit of long-form entrepreneurialism will seem like the blandest possible substitute.

Really, this is not a novel at all but an extended film treatment written in the first person. It’s a colourless summary of what the story might become when the director shouts “action”. Miller still punctuates like a playwright – which is to say, haphazardly – but there’s none of the spiky emotional dynamism of the original script.

In fact, a big-screen version of Prima Facie has already been announced. English actress Cynthia Erivo will play the lead role, while Miller has written the screenplay. This book is therefore a movie tie-in, which is meant to put an edge on expectation in the lead-up to the film’s release.

Has Miller missed an opportunity to do something more interesting here? Could she have republished the original playscript alongside the comments of experts, advocates and audience members moved by the play? And could she have presented all this as the raw material from which her polemic is derived?


Instead of introducing a fictional journalist to provide the novel’s epilogue, Miller could have pushed her own story toward the realms of journalism in formally interesting ways. Such a book would be a unique text, and perfect as a set text for high school students.

No doubt Miller has too much work on her plate to be mucking around with literary experiments: her most recent play, a hymn to the late United States Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is touring Australia next year, and there are whispers of a West End run in the not-too-distant future.

Still, this is manifestly not a great popular novel with an important message, even if it does have an important message. Yes, the force of Miller’s demand for change cannot be denied; but if you haven’t seen Prima Facie the play, I reckon you should hold out for the movie.

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