Interview: PRIMA FACIE Director Justin Martin on Finding a Stage Language With Jodie Comer

Maritn discusses the process of bringing a one-woman play to the stage, what it means to him to direct this play, and more.

By: May. 30, 2023
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Interview: PRIMA FACIE Director Justin Martin on Finding a Stage Language With Jodie Comer
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Suzie Miller's Prima Facie, which made a splash first in Australia, followed by the West End, earning Miller the Olivier Award for Best Play and star Jodie Comer the Olivier Award for Best Actress, is currently making its impact on the Broadway stage. The Broadway production, which features Comer in her Broadway debut, is helmed by award-winning director Justin Martin, whose credits include Prima Facie's West End production, the BAFTA award winning film Together starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan (co-directed with Stephen Daldry), the Young Vic/National Theatre producion of The Jungle (co-directed with Stephen Daldry), Netflix's The Crown, and many more.

Prima Facie, which is currently nominated for four Tony Awards, follows Tessa, a young barrister at the top of her game who defends men accused of sexual assault. When Tessa is assaulted herself, she is forced to confront the patriarchal system of the law which suppresses the voices of sexual assault survivors, and her own complicity.

BroadwayWorld spoke with director Justin Martin about the process of bringing a one-woman play to life, what it means to him to direct this play, and more. 

This is an incredible play, what were your first thoughts about it when you became attached to the production?

Suzie had said to me, “I want to send you this little play,” so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. And I sat down and read it, and I just burst into tears. I read it so quickly because it was just a roller coaster and it went so fast. It spoke to me as a human being. Obviously it has a female protagonist at the center of it, but as a human being with an interest in justice, it just touched me, and it really affected me. I spoke to my partner straight away and I said, “I’ve got to be a part of this.”

It’s connecting to a lot of the theatre that Suzie and I were talking about, we both share this naïve belief that theatre can change the world. Suzie had gotten out of being a barrister because she felt she wasn’t able to make change through that direction. And like a lot of the work I’d done before, we connected over that. She’d seen The Jungle, and this play had that. It was the inception of somebody who’d been wanting to write this play for 20 years, had finally found the way to tell it, and it just felt like something I had to be involved in.

Prima Facie

I would love to learn about your process in bringing a one-woman play to life. How does your approach to bringing a one-person play to life differ from a play with multiple characters?

It doesn’t differ in terms of my approach, I’m always trying to go, “Okay, how do I take what’s been written and support it?” And, “How is the production in conversation with it?” Suzie is a brilliant, open collaborator. We talked about what the play is, we spent a lot of time with the designers, we spent a lot of time in court, and we just immersed ourselves in that world, trying to understand the language of it.

And then, for me, I always ask myself the question of, “How is this relevant to today, and how can I make the production feel like it’s in conversation with today?” You don’t have to do a lot of hard work with Suzie’s play, because it’s already there. But a lot of the work the designers and I did together was just trying to find a barrister’s playground that an audience could relate to. Because it is such an archaic world, particularly within the British system. 

I think the difference is that it was very intense between Jodie and I. It was just the two of us, and I became the person she was talking to, because she has no other actor on stage. So, it was a lot of us figuring out a language with which she could talk to the audience, and with which what she said wasn’t just reported action. She wasn’t saying what had happened in the past, she was saying what’s happening now, so that the play really felt like it was in the moment, as opposed to in the past. Because what you’re getting is her interior monologue, what she’s thinking. And so, it’s very fast, but it’s fast because she thinks at that speed. It was a very brilliantly warm, intense experience. I had a room that was very open, a lot of people I’d worked with before. I actually always joked that I just got my mates together, and Jodie became one of those mates very fast, and we just had a good time.

What was it like in the room, working with Jodie? 

Well, she hadn’t done a lot of theatre, so she was very open, she just wanted to dive in and go, “What is this?” And the sort of genius with her is that every offer you throw at her, she’ll have a go at, and she’ll really work hard to figure it out. There is something about one-person shows, they’re sort of circus tricks. The question we get asked the most, which I think is fascinating is, “How do you learn all the lines?” And then, “How do you do that eight times a week?” I knew that I wanted to find a language with her which had a physicality that used the space. There had been a production done in Australia which was very small, for a 100 seat audience, and that allowed for a lot of stillness because the audience were right next to you.

We had a massive space, and we needed to find a language that fit that space. She is so brilliantly physical, and she just jumped into it. She’s just very open. So, it was a very open communication between the two of us, which is very, very special. She really trusted me, and I really trusted her. And I think you feel that in the production.

What was the language you developed between one another to fill a Broadway theatre? To find it for New York?

We knew we had to activate the language so that it didn’t feel like she was saying something that had happened in the past. So, we messed around with this, I suppose it’s a barrister’s playground, so she could move the tables wherever she wanted, she is very much in control of the world. She can move things, she can change things, she can refer to something and the lights will come up. And then the second half was very much going, “We’re going to take the stage language out of your hands, and you’re now existing within the context of it.” And trying to move the tables. And it really appealed to both of us, and really appealed to Suzie, this idea of someone completely in control, and someone completely out of control.

As much as possible, it was trying to find fun things for Jodie to do. When I say fun, I don’t mean the second half is necessarily fun, but the first half was finding fun, silly, interesting things that support a character, and the journey of a working class woman who shouldn’t have necessarily been in the echelon she was in.

We just went in there and made it. But I had a great room with me, Suzie was there with us all the time. I’m the first audience, and it’s really interesting as a male for that play being the first audience. And it was really important to Suzie and I that we try to make the conversation a mixed one. It’s very obvious to say, but a lot of it is a male issue, and we’ve got to change. And so, a lot of what we were trying to do with the play is find a language that crossed the boundary of gender.

Prima Facie

How does it feel to be helping to push that conversation forward and make it a wider-reaching conversation?

I’m a massive believer in this idea of coalition. And I think women have been trying to make change for so long, and part of the problem is that there are a lot of men who don’t want it to change, because it suits them. For me, I can get on board very easily with a coalition of 'I don’t want over half the population to have less rights than I do'. I don’t want to live in that world. My life is as influenced by the women in my life as the men in my life. Why shouldn’t the law be the same? Because my life is better having both sides of that conversation. And I think the law is too far-steeped in patriarchy and maleness, and the patriarchy also hasn’t done a lot of great things for men either. So, it’s very easy to get on board for me in that conversation.

Suzie and I connected over what theatre could be, and what we thought we could do with this play. So, I think the big hope is can we reach out not just to the women in the audience, but to the men in the audience and create change? There is a new law coming in, they’re trying to push through, the barristers, called the Tessa Law, which is based on the character. And all judges in Northern Ireland now have to watch the filmed version of the play as part of their training. So, slowly but surely we’re trying to find ways of getting theatre off the arts pages to try to use it to make change within the country. 

Do you have any final thoughts?

What I’m so excited about in New York is that it’s been embraced in the way that it has. It was written in Australia, within an Australian context. When we took it to England, Suzie and I worked with Jodie and we rewrote it for an English context, within the context of Liverpool, and working class. And class became a different conversation, it is different in the UK than it is in Australia or America.

It’s just so humbling to see the play resonate and reverberate within an American context because the situation in the UK is that it’s 1 in 3. In the US it’s closer to 1 in 2 women are sexually assaulted. And that is so alarming, and I don’t know how any country can live with itself. That’s an epidemic, and that needs to change. And the fact that it’s not front and center of every conversation, I find really alarming. So hopefully, even if people are just talking about Jodie’s amazing performance, at least we’re using that as a means of getting to a bigger conversation.

Prima Facie