‘The hardest thing is for a woman to say I was raped’: Jodie Comer on the Prima Facie effect

After the opening night of the hit play Prima Facie in London in 2022, a young female producer came up to playwright Suzie Miller and said, “Loved the play. I’m one in three,” a line from the script referring to the number of women who are sexually assaulted in the UK. “She didn’t have to say ‘I was raped,’” Miller recalls. “It was this moment where I thought, ‘Oh, you can say that now.’”

“The hardest thing is for a woman to say ‘I was raped,’” adds Jodie Comer, whose solo performance as the young defence lawyer forced to confront the failings of the legal system after she herself is sexually assaulted made the play a sensation. “Women struggle with those words. To see people come and voice ‘This happened to me’ is enormous.” This month Miller publishes a novelised version of the play, also called Prima Facie: it is dedicated to “all the women who comprise the ‘one in three’.”

It is a sunny morning in London when we meet at the offices of Miller’s publisher. The Australian playwright lives in Sydney with her family, but has flown in from New York, where she celebrated the US launch of the novel and managed, in true theatrical style, actually to break a leg. “Is this it?” Comer exclaims over the pile of black Prima Facie hardbacks on the table in front of us. “Can I have one? Is that OK?” As Miller assures me before Comer arrives, the Killing Eve star, famous for playing the world’s favourite assassin, Villanelle, is very nice and down-to-earth – unless she is hiding a poisoned hairpin under the beanie she wears throughout the interview. Comer is here in a supporting role today: she read the novel for the audiobook.

“A one-woman play about rape that’s a bit funny – I thought, ‘No one’s going to put that on,’” Miller says of the play that sold out in both the West End and Broadway, and won Olivier awards for Miller and Comer. When Comer’s name first came up for the part of Tessa, Miller – much to her embarrassment now – said no, because she assumed the actor was Russian, like Villanelle. “When they told me she was British and from Liverpool, I was like ‘God, yes!’” she laughs. Comer’s agent sent her the script during the first lockdown when Comer was living at home with her parents in Liverpool. “I read it straight away and was bowled over by the magnitude of the subject matter,” the actor says. “I was so moved by it.” There followed a telephone conversation in which Miller confided that her husband (a high court judge in Australia) is a Liverpool fan. “There was a long silence,” Miller recalls. “And Jodie said, ‘My dad works for Everton.’ Comer’s father has been the team’s physiotherapist for years. Football rivalry aside, they have barely been out of touch since.

From feminist hit-woman to rape survivor who takes on the system, casting Comer as Tess, a working-class Scouse girl done good, was a masterstroke. After the multilingual turns of Villanelle, she could do it in her own accent, for a start. She was back on the home territory of Help, the 2021 TV drama about the care-home crisis during Covid set in Liverpool. As Killing Eve writer-creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge has said, Comer can “play both naivety and damage with incredible dexterity”, qualities that made her perfect for the part of Tessa.

Prima Facie is all about the messy ambiguities that make rape so problematic in court: Tessa has previously had consensual sex with her attacker, Julian, in his rooms in chambers, and is so drunk on the night of the attack that she is sick. The genius of the play is to make the audience, at various times, witness, judge and jury. So why turn it into a novel?

Jodie Comer in Prima Facie Photograph: Helen Murray

“It was this incredible experience of being able to lay it all out, the psychological background,” Miller replies. “It was like stretching out your limbs in a yoga class.” She was able to flesh out a backstory only hinted at in the play: Tessa’s troubled childhood with a violent father, her relationship with her brother, Johnny, who went in the other direction to end up on the wrong side of the law, and the snobbery encountered by a state-school girl at Cambridge. They had spent weeks in rehearsals building Tess’s character and past, but when it came to doing the audiobook, “it was almost like having to let go of the Tess that I knew,” Comer says. “And delving into Tess within the book.” The theatre is all about expansion and reaching the back of the auditorium, but audiobooks are about pace and articulation. “It is much more intimate,” she says. “I had a lump in my throat the whole way through.”

While there have been plenty of major plays based on books, it is hard to think of many examples the other way round. “I feel like I do everything back to front,” the playwright says of publishing her debut novel just shy of 60. “The novel writing has been a great joy. I wish I’d done it years ago.”

Prima Facie is often assumed to be Miller’s first play, but in fact she has 40 productions to her name. “Some of them are very short plays,” she says. Raised in Melbourne, Miller started out as a scientist before swapping the lab for the bar. After years working as a defence lawyer herself (details such as “6pm wig hair” and “boring” barrister shoes give the novel a true whiff of chambers), Miller became a human rights lawyer. But she felt she was just putting her “fingers in the leaks and only effecting change for one human”, and that her barrister’s storytelling powers could reach a proper audience in the theatre. Her first play, 2004’s Cross Sections, portrayed the plight of young sex workers in the red light district in Sydney. Others have dealt with racism and injustice; most recently another one‑woman play, about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But for years Miller juggled a legal career and being a mother with writing for the theatre, only quitting the law in 2010 to take up a residency at the National Theatre in London, where she lived with her family for a few years. She had become dispirited with the lack of female playwrights in Australia. “I just have a sensibility here [in London] that makes sense to me,” she says. “And the theatre here is the best in the world.”

The idea for Prima Facie came to her way back when she was in law school in Australia and was struck by the injustice of how the question of consent on which rape and sexual assault cases rest so often works against the victim (only 1.3% end in convictions in the UK). “It’s the only crime where one person says, ‘This definitely happened to me’ and the other person says ‘I didn’t know that it did, so therefore I’m not guilty’,” Miller explains. “It’s a weird double negative that if he doesn’t think that he did anything wrong, then nothing wrong was done. The defence’s role is to cross-examine the woman and make her look like a liar.”

Comer was shocked to learn that the accused has the right to remain silent while the complainant’s case is deliberately and artfully undermined. “Hang on a second! She [Tessa] is on the stand, getting questioned, ridiculed, shamed in whatever way and he [Julian] can literally sit there and say absolutely nothing.”

When it opened in London in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and just weeks after the Million Women Rise protests against male violence to mark the first anniversary of the murder of Sarah Everard, the play spoke to a moment. Miller feels that seeing an actor audiences knew and loved, playing “a character who is smart and wasn’t a victim”, added to the connection people felt to the play. “It just took on a life of its own,” Comer says.

Watching Comer’s Tess go from swaggering across the stage in her barrister’s silk blouse and expensive loafers to standing barefoot and broken, it is hard to believe this was her first major stage performance. Added to which, she was on stage, alone, for more than 90 minutes, eight times a week. At one point, rain falls from the theatre ceiling, drenching poor Tess. The audience, let alone Comer, leaves feeling totally wrung out. “It was incredible,” she says. “Everyone says theatre is the pinnacle. So to experience that for the first time with such an extraordinary play, and to feel so clearly that there really is a conversation being had, and it’s being met with such eagerness and understanding, was so unique.”

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Suzie Miller. Photograph: James Brickwood

After the opening night, when, as Miller recalls, the audience rose in “a swarm” to their feet and critics scrabbled for superlatives, the play sparked conversations, from the bars of theatreland to courtrooms across the world. Both Miller and Comer have received countless emails and letters from women giving their testimonies. “There was such a sense of community online. It really struck a nerve with people,” Comer says. Even close friends finally felt able to speak to her about their own experiences. A judge at the Old Bailey called Miller at 9am the morning after she had seen the play to tell her she had sat up all night rewriting the jury instructions on rape. She was calling it her “Prima Facie Direction” to remind people that just because someone doesn’t remember something in “a consistent, easy fashion”, it doesn’t mean they are lying, it might mean they are traumatised. “Using your written words,” Comer tells Miller proudly.

“Remember the police officer?” she continues. “Obviously there were a lot of women who recognised themselves in Tessa. This man came forward and said, ‘I am a police officer. I see what you’re saying. And I understand that something needs to be done.’”

Real change is starting to happen. Watching a film recording of the play is now mandatory for all newly appointed judges in Northern Ireland, and a screening was put on for 3,000 police officers in North Yorkshire, followed by a discussion of how they log reports of sexual assault.

Just last week, Miller spoke at the UN in New York. “Of course, it’s an international problem. Sometimes it feels insurmountable.” Her hope is that the court system will respond with the same urgency as the media did over #MeToo. A group of barristers have formed a group called Tessa – The Examination of Serious Sexual Assault. “They have redrafted a whole load of protocols that haven’t been changed in 20 to 30 years,” she says. There are calls for “affirmative” or “enthusiastic consent”, which means “you can’t assume consent. You have to ask if it’s there or not, and you have got to keep checking along the way,” Miller explains, “because someone can change their mind.” Like Tess, Comer adds. “They went on a date, they had sex, which is what she wanted, then she was extremely ill and it wasn’t what she wanted. Those two things can exist in the same place.”

While it may not be as violent as Tess’s experience, Miller says, “nearly every woman has had some version of an event when they were young. I certainly have. Where I look back and think ‘Was that consensual? Or did I just not know what to do?’”

It is tempting to hope that even if the law has failed to keep up, a greater openness about sexual harassment has made things easier for young people. Comer isn’t so sure. “I think porn is a huge thing. What young people assume to be normal tends to be quite aggressive and dominating.”

Both Miller and Comer are keen to promote the charity Schools Consent Project, with which the play partnered. Lawyers for the charity have “gone out to thousands of schools to talk about consent,” Miller explains. “This is where you make the difference.” Comer agrees. “Even when I look back at school, I don’t really remember doing proper sex education. We maybe got put in a room and a VHS tape got put on for an hour.”

As the mother of a now grown-up boy as well as a daughter, Miller would like to see “men foster their sons through a process of feminism as well”. Her next play, which will run at the National Theatre next year, is “about mothers and how they raise their sons and how they live in the cracks between everyone else’s lives”.

The character of Tessa’s mum, a cleaner back home in Liverpool, a small but moving presence in the play, is allowed more space in the novel. Miller’s own mother and greatest champion died just before the play opened. “So it was very infused with her death,” she says. Watching the scene where Tess says she just wants to sit with her mum on the sofa, and rewriting it for the novel, was incredibly sad. “I can never do that again.”

Not content with an award-winning play, novel and audiobook, Miller has written a screenplay for a movie version of Prima Facie that is about to start filming in London. Cynthia Erivo will star as Tessa and Miller is pleased the film will address the issue of race within the legal system. She deliberately didn’t include any physical descriptions of her heroine in the novel. “Tessa is all women,” she says. “I want her to be every woman who reads it.”

The novel will reach even more of those one-in-three women. Just as Tess “passes the baton” of her story to a journalist at the end of the novel, Miller admits to a “joyful hope” that readers will give the book to their daughters and friends. “Or you can listen to Jodie reading it in your own home, turning it off when you need to pause and going back,” she says. “I’d love to think there’s an underground grapevine of women going, ‘If this has ever happened to you, this will show you that it’s not your shame.’”

“There was a line that really struck me,” Comer interjects. “In the final pages, when Tess says, ‘I have to believe I can make a difference.’ Because we often think of ourselves as just one person. ‘I can’t change things. What could I do?’ And here’s a woman saying ‘No, I have to believe that I can!’ It is so important for us to remember that.”

Prima Facie by Suzie Miller is published by Hutchinson Heinemann on 14 March. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.