Jodie Comer, who has won acclaim and awards for her role as the obsessive assassin Villanelle in Killing Eve, will make her West End stage debut playing a criminal barrister specialising in defending rapists — who is then sexually assaulted herself.
In Prima Facie, Comer will play a ‘thoroughbred’ lawyer who has used her skills not just to defend men, but also to denigrate their victims.
But then she finds herself up against the very same system she’s used to her advantage in the past, where victims of assault are often disbelieved.
‘Yes, the sex happened, but was it consensual . . . or not? It’s her word against his,’ explained Australian-born lawyer turned playwright Suzie Miller, whose thriller will have its first performance at the Harold Pinter Theatre on April 15 next year.
Jodie Comer (pictured) will make her West End stage debut in Prima Facie, playing a criminal barrister specialising in defending rapists — who is then sexually assaulted herself
During her legal career Miller, who has lived in the UK and Australia, said she would take as many as six statements a week from young women who’d been victims of sex attacks.
‘I don’t know of any sexual assault statement that I’ve ever taken, where I could ever be convinced that they were lying,’ Miller told me from her home in Sydney.
She decided to write a play that looked at how laws — mainly devised and written by ‘a very elite group of men’ — turned the tables on women in cases of assault.
‘Remember, not so long ago it wasn’t illegal to rape your wife,’ she reminded me.
But Miller said Prima Facie is not just a story for women. It’s for men as well. And she hopes it will make everybody stop and think. ‘Let’s redefine what consent is. Let’s make sure that if you’re a man and not socially equipped to read the signs, then learn! Let’s bring up boys to know that No Means No.’
There has been concern for years about how police and the courts treat women involved in sexual assault cases. The play pulls no punches, and shows the trauma many women and their families have to endure.
Miller told me that when she approached Comer, 28, they spoke for more than an hour, discussing the role of Tessa Ensler — a woman from a working-class background who excelled at law school despite having to deal with issues of class and misogyny.
After her conversation with the actress, a proud Liverpudlian, Miller decided to switch the setting of the play from Australia to the UK, and make Tessa ‘a Scouser’.
She’s collaborating on the project with director Justin Martin, a close associate of Stephen Daldry’s. (They worked together on Billy Elliot and many of Daldry’s other productions, including The Inheritance, which won a Tony award in New York last weekend.)
Heavy hitter: She is fast becoming a big name on the big screen. Pictured in Free Guy with Ryan Reynolds, which was a success at the box office
Martin said he and producer James Bierman were sent the play before it was staged in Australia, where it won awards and attracted audiences that often stayed behind at the end, and argued about its content.
The director said he was still slightly ‘in shock’ at how fast Comer read the work. ‘Tessa does things in the play that Jodie really connected with,’ he told me.
And he was clearly excited about the prospect of working with the actress. ‘She’s somebody who’s fearless; somebody who feels they’re outside the norm and the centrist nature of London. She’s kept that part of her that’s Liverpool alive. She can do humour, and she can be incredibly moving.’
The last time Comer appeared on stage was 11 years ago, in a play called The Price Of Everything, by Noleen Kershaw, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.
Bierman told me that Zabarjad ‘Budgie’ Salam, the dialect coach Comer uses on Killing Eve, was already helping to prepare her for the nine-week season at the Harold Pinter. Tessa may speak with a Liverpool accent in the scenes where she returns home; but in London and the courtroom, she affects an RP accent.
Producer and director also took their new leading lady to a play at the Pinter, so she could get a feel for the auditorium. ‘We’re going to spend some time in courts,’ Bierman said. ‘And I’m introducing her to two female barristers.’
Prima Facie’s an enormous undertaking for Comer. It’s a one-woman show and she will have to hold the audience’s attention on her own.
But that should not prove beyond her. She has already conquered the world of television, with parts in Doctor Foster, Killing Eve (which won her an Emmy and a Bafta), an Alan Bennett monologue, and the recent Help on Channel 4. And she is fast becoming a big name on the big screen. Free Guy (in which she starred alongside Ryan Reynolds) was a success at the box office.
Comer (left, in Free Guy with Joe Keery) has already conquered the world of television, with her role as the obsessive assassin Villanelle in Killing Eve (which won her an Emmy and a Bafta)
And she’s garnered praise for her latest picture, Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel.
In fact, Scott has already cast her in his next film, Kitbag, along with Joaquin Phoenix. She’ll shoot that one before rehearsals for Prima Facie begin in March.
I’ve read the play, by the way; and I can totally visualise Comer taking on the role of Tessa and making it soar. No wonder the actress told the creatives that she ‘can’t see anyone else doing it’.
Neither can I.
Tickets are on sale from 10am today for ATG priority members; and from noon for general sale via primafacieplay.com.
Bierman said Comer’s supporting the play’s Pay What You Can campaign, which means there will be some affordable tickets available at every performance. ‘If you want to pay a pound, and that’s all you’ve got, then that’ll get you in.’
He added Comer felt it was ‘very important’ that people from all backgrounds should be able to see the play.
The Fab-best moment in pop
When Beatles manager Brian Epstein played an audition tape of the Fab Four for record producer George Martin, the recording genius was less than impressed.
Epstein won him round at a subsequent meeting, and Martin eventually signed the Scousers to a contract. The rest is part of the cultural fabric of our history.
Those initially terse interactions between Epstein and Martin are recounted in the screenplay for Midas Man, written by Jonathan Wakeham from a story by Brigit Grant.
Terse interactions between Beatles manager Brian Epstein and record producer George Martin (right) are recounted in the screenplay for Midas Man. Pictured left: Actor Charlie Palmer Rothwell plays Martin
And Jordan Kelly (left), a 22-year-old graduate from the University of Central Lancashire, will portray Gerry Marsden (right) of Gerry And The Pacemakers — also managed by Epstein
The film will start shooting imminently on locations in Liverpool. Directed by Jonas Akerlund, it is centred on the life of Epstein, a would-be-actor who realises the group’s potential when he hears them at the Cavern Club. Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, a star of Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit, will play Epstein.
Charley Palmer Rothwell (who appeared in Darkest Hour, Beast and Dunkirk) portrays Martin.
And Liverpool native Jordan Kelly, a 22-year-old graduate from the University of Central Lancashire, will portray Gerry Marsden of Gerry And The Pacemakers — who were also managed by Epstein.
Other cast include Emily Watson, Eddie Marsan and Omari Douglas.