Jodie Comer

Prima Facie

21/07/22

NT Live, The Cameo, Edinburgh

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jodie Comer is a formidable talent, and I am more than happy to add my voice to the fangirl choir. Not only is she a chameleon, she’s also bristling with charisma, and she’s perfectly cast to play this complex, demanding role. The only difficulty is in believing this is her stage debut – because she seems born to it. She is a theatrical tour de force.

Prima Facie is, essentially, a feminist polemic, and a much-needed one. Art, as Aristotle sort of said, is multi-purpose, and can be used to educate as well as simply entertain. And boy, do we need educating. In the UK, a shocking 99% of reported rapes don’t even make it to court, and – of those that do – fewer than a third lead to a guilty verdict. When we take into consideration the enormous number of sexual assaults that are never reported at all (an estimated 83%), there’s only one conclusion to draw: the system isn’t working. Rape is a horrendous crime, but it’s one you’re likely to get away with.

Australian playwright Suzie Miller is on a mission to address this. She used to be a criminal defence lawyer, specialising in human rights, and she realised then that something was amiss. The law, she says, is built on assumptions that don’t acknowledge the realities of rape, without any real understanding of what consent looks like in practice, nor of how a victim might present. And so Prima Facie, directed by Justin Martin, comes howling into the void, forcing us to consider the urgency of change. The sold-out run at London’s Harold Pinter theatre, and the packed live-streamings at cinemas across the land, suggest there’s a lot of support for the idea (as well as a lot of Killing Eve fans, of course).

Comer plays Tessa, a brilliant young woman, who’s made it against the odds. Her first battle – as a state-educated Scouser – was getting into Cambridge law school; her second was graduating; her third becoming a barrister. She’s on the up, winning, sniggering at a young wannabe who asks of a rapist, ‘But is he guilty?” – because objective truth isn’t what she seeks. It’s “legal truth” that matters, which lawyer is best at playing the game. And she’s a fine player, one of the best. Lots of accusees are walking free because of her.

Until, one day, Tessa is raped. It’s a messy, complicated case, the type she knows she’ll never win. She was drunk; she’d had sex with the perpetrator before; she hasn’t any evidence. The whole legal edifice – the thing she’s dedicated her life to – comes crumbling down; the scales fall from her eyes. Her rapist will get off scot-free, thanks to someone like her, just doing their job. And the change in her is utterly and devastatingly believable. She’s always been determined. This might be a losing battle, but she’ll go down fighting.

The staging (by Miriam Buether) is an interesting blend: the piece opens in the naturalistic confines of a stuffy, traditional chambers, but the tables are soon being utilised as a courtroom, the chair as a toilet; costume changes happen slickly, on stage: Comer is her own dresser, as well as her own stage hand. Out on the street, after the assault, rain falls almost literally on her parade, washing away her former swagger. The lights change, the stage becomes a suffocating black box, and a projected calendar reveals the shocking truth of just how many days it takes to get your case to court. Years are lost.

The score, composed by the ever-fabulous Self-Esteem (Rebecca Lucy Taylor) perfectly complements the piece – it’s an intelligent marriage of art forms.

I won’t reveal whether Tessa wins; you can consider the statistics and place your bets. What she does do is deliver a final speech that, while it isn’t necessarily believable, is a perfect piece of wish-fulfilment. It’s all the conversations she’s had in her head during the three years she’s been waiting; it’s her fantasy moment, raising her voice and finally being heard.

This is a call to action that walks the walk, directly supporting The Schools Consent Project, “educating and empowering young people to understand and engage with the issues surrounding consent and sexual assault”. It’s also a powerful, tear-inducing play.

More, please.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

The Last Duel

16/10/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

You have to hand it to Ridley Scott. At an age when most people are seeking nothing more than a mug of Horlicks and a pair of comfy slippers, he’s still creating big, powerful movies at a rate that would make most younger directors quail. Lurking just over the cinematic horizon is The House of Gucci, but meanwhile there’s The Last Duel, a powerful slice of true history, that unfolds its controversial story over a leisurely two hours and thirty-two minutes. Set in France in the fourteenth century, it relates the story of the last official duel ever fought there.

After years of military service in various wars under the sponsorship of Count Pierre d’ Alençon (Ben Affleck), Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is struggling to maintain his house and lands, after the death of his wife. So he marries Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), the daughter of a disgraced but prosperous landowner. As part of the dowry, Jean is promised an area of land he’s long coveted, so he’s understandably miffed when Pierre takes control of it and gifts it to his squire, Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), a former friend of Jean’s.

A powerful rivalry develops between the two men – a rivalry that finally culminates in Jacques visiting Jean’s castle in his absence and raping Marguerite. Jacques denies the allegation – in his self-aggrandising mind, Marguerite was attracted to him and therefore there was no rape. She meanwhile insists on speaking out against her assailant in an age when women in such situations were advised to keep quiet about such matters for their own safety.

Jean demands that Jacques meets him in mortal combat, and that God should decide who is telling the truth – but the consequences of him losing the fight are severe to say the very least. Marguerite will be burned alive if God judges her to be a liar.

The message here is inescapable. In a world where toxic masculinity holds sway, a woman’s word is worth nothing. She is expected to obey her husband in all matters and keep her mouth firmly shut, just as Jean’s mother, Nicole (Harriet Walter), had to when she was younger. It’s sad to observe that, many centuries later, this situation hasn’t improved as much as it should have done. Only recently, certain commentators in America have insisted on holding to the medieval belief that a woman cannot become pregnant through rape. It beggars belief but it’s still out there.

The Last Duel is told, Rashomon style, in three separate chapters, each one seen from the point of view of one of the leading characters. Often we see the same scene replayed with sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring differences. It’s not until we reach the final stretch that we witness Marguerite’s account of what actually happened to her and there’s no doubt in our minds that hers is the one we ought to believe. The script by Damon, Afflick and Nicole Holofcener, based on the novel by Eric Jager, is perfectly judged and a quick perusal of the actual events reveals that the writers have been assiduously faithful to what happened. Both Damon and Driver excel as men driven by their own overbearing sense of privilege, while Comer dazzles in every frame, clearly a woman on the verge of becoming a major star of the big screen. Little wonder that Scott has lined her up to play Josephine in his upcoming Napoleon biopic.

This is serious, grown-up filmmaking of a kind that’s sadly all too rare in a cinema dominated by cartoonish fantasy films. Scott has always excelled in recreating history on an epic scale and The Last Duel doesn’t disappoint. The big screen virtually explodes with a whole series of magnificent set pieces. Here is a medieval world that convinces down to the final detail, one that looks and feels thoroughly believable. And is there any other director who can depict medieval warfare in such brutal, unflinching detail? For once, the film’s 18 certificate feels entirely appropriate. I find myself gasping at just about every sword, axe and hammer blow.

The Last Duel won’t be for everyone, but for me it provides a visual feast with a compelling and fascinating story – and reinforces my belief that Ridley Scott is one of cinema’s most enduring and most versatile talents.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney