Kupe’s outstanding performance dissects painfully topical and relevant issues.
Prima Facie review by Leigh Sykes, Theatreview
Published: Thursday 22 June, 2023
Suzie Miller’s play became something of a phenomenon when it premiered in the UK and provided Jodie Comer’s (Killing Eve) West End debut. Comer is currently appearing on Broadway in a production of the play, and here in Auckland, this season of the show appears to be sold out before the first performance even begins.
This speaks to the reputation of this play and I therefore take my seat in a buzzing opening night crowd with a sense of great anticipation.
The set (designed by John Parker) is simple, consisting of a large table, an office chair, and a noticeably male mannequin in a legal gown and wig. The back wall of the set is a large screen showing documents, which allows for items to be projected onto the surface. The name of the play and the playwright are projected onto this surface as we enter.
The play begins with our main character, Tessa Ensler (Acushla-Tara Kupe) in court, wearing that gown and wig, educating us on her skill as a defence lawyer. She speaks directly to us, engaging us immediately in her description of her tactics and abilities, especially when cross examining a witness. It is a compelling opening, pulling us immediately into this high stakes world where, despite the unsavoury allegation made against the client Tessa is defending, I find myself impressed by the verve and confidence with which she describes the thrill of ‘not coming second’ in this court case. It’s clear that Tessa feels at home in this world, knowing that her legal instinct makes her a formidable opponent for any prosecutors she encounters.
From here, the play takes us on a journey through other aspects of Tessa’s life. The section that shows us Tessa’s introduction to Law School is powerfully presented, and unveils an idea that will be revisited to great effect later in the play. I feel for the younger version of Tessa who feels so different to the other students around her, and when this state of being excluded recurs later in the play, it is presented just as convincingly.
Lighting (designed by Jane Hakaraia) works effectively with the stage space and the few items of furniture within it to create a range of different settings and moods as we see Tessa celebrate her win with colleagues; visit her somewhat dysfunctional family; be head-hunted by another chamber, and then become drawn into a connection with her colleague Damien. There are some wonderfully entertaining moments of Tessa dancing and celebrating in a club as well as some heartfelt moments with family that demonstrate the range of Kupe’s abilities.
As the story unfolds, short titles are projected on the back of the stage, helping us to understand these different facets of Tessa’s story. Throughout these different sections, Kupe shows great facility in suggesting the range of other characters. With precise changes of voice, stance or energy, she presents her colleagues, her family and the people she defends in court skilfully and concisely. It’s a great skill to watch and I admire the small details in Kupe’s performance that make each moment convincing.
When the story reaches its pivotal moment, and Tessa’s encounter with a colleague takes a violent turn, Kupe’s commitment to embodying this moment is total. The audience becomes utterly still and it feels like everyone is holding their breath – appalled at what we’re hearing and seeing and yet utterly unable to look away.
From here, the legal profession that Tessa has been so proud to be a part of, flips on her as she becomes a complainant, a victim, a witness that has to be cross examined when her case finally makes it to court. Parts of Tessa’s journey to her day in court are heart-rending and confronting, and Gittins’ direction here skilfully ensures that we are able to bear witness to that journey without being overwhelmed by it.
The outcome of the court case never feels inevitable, and the conclusion of the play is a stirring call for change that resonates powerfully in the room. Tessa’s recognition of the failure of the justice system to give victims a fair chance at trial, and her sense of lost trust in the process she has been a very successful part of is devastating. A standing ovation is quick to follow in recognition of Kupe’s powerhouse performance, which is full of subtlety and nuance and utterly compelling.
This is an outstanding play that addresses so many issues that are painfully topical and relevant, and Kupe’s performance ensures we are riveted as those issues are dissected. It is a testament to the power of the play and its skillful performer that tickets are rarer than hen’s teeth. If you have any chance to get hold of a ticket, I implore you to grab it.