Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 18 June 2022
Forget the cold sadistic clotheshorse Villanelle from Killing Eve. Actually, forget all Jodie Comer’s screen awards. This extraordinary West End stage debut reveals not only strong vocal skill (something not universal in those best known onscreen) but an absolutely dazzling physical expressiveness and high-voltage emotional power. It feels as if she has been pulling houses to their feet for decades – utterly in charge in a mesmerising solo tour-de-force that never flags in 95 minutes. Vivid and vigorous, judged to a hair, and – for all the profound and shattered emotion of its climax – crackling with her native Liverpudlian wit, she is a phenomenon.
Moreover, Suzie Miller’s play is one of the most important we shall see this decade. It takes on the most troubling of gulfs: the abyss in our culture between legal systems and safeguards for the innocent, and the difficulty of successfully prosecuting rape in an age that licenses and celebrates the impetuous hook-up.
The legal term of the title translates as “At first sight”, meaning what seems believable to anyone witnessing it. Our heroine is a barrister, seven years in practice. Coming from working-class roots she revels in her sheer skill at the game of law. As the play opens Comer, against pale neat walls of case-files stretching to the roof, leaps on and off leatherbound tables in chambers and expresses, with gestures and imitations and wily wit, the professional delight of winning a case. It becomes clear that she is getting a name for defending men accused of sexual assault.
There are flashbacks to her beginnings, self-doubting amid the poshos in law school, visits to her office-cleaner Mum in Liverpool, but the focus is on her achievement now. Forget the nerdy corporate lawyers, she likes the hard human battles. Her glee draws you to her point of view for a while, arguing that even if the guy was guilty, it is just her lawyerly job to tell his story well. The law of course pivots, terrifyingly, on whether a man “believed” there was consent.
Then she has a happy hookup in the office with her colleague Julian, and after a successful dinner date takes him home, and they make love. But she is drunk. So drunk the sake gets to her and she vomits, feeling weak and dreadful. And he carries her back to bed, apparently caringly, but moments later the rape takes place. Comer’s skill is almost horrifying as without shedding a stitch she shows us how it was: held down, in pain, confused. In an extraordinary scene she throws on a dress from the spare room, unable to face him again, and runs out into real sluicing rain in a dark stage. The comforting tidy familiar walls of legal filing have vanished (Miriam Buether’s set as ever plays a key atmospheric role).
We see the police interview, its tone, its uselessness, the horror of the fact that as she tells her pain and confusion the man is still asleep in her flat. Professional instinct tells her “this is a losing case”.
Above, words saying DAY 1 make us expect to spring, as a TV drama would, straight to the court. But then it rolls on to Day 782. Because in Britain now, that is about what victims have to expect. Two years of misery, self-reproach, awkwardness, reproof on behalf of Julian “who is a good guy, does a lot of pro bono”.
Finally in court, the scene of her old triumphs suddenly an unfamiliar lonely place, she is in the witness box. Intellectually she knows she is being “reeled in” by an artful defence counsel just as she once reeled them in. But “This is me. A system I devoted my life to is called upon, by me…”.
It fails. They often do. In cases like this we can only marvel at the courage women find to carry on. Both were drunk, both enthusiastically consensual partners on the same night… nobody else there, no marks of violence. So two years later that she must argue about every action, every body part’s position.
Philosophically, legally, she finds her professional voice again to argue – in a final coda more politically passionate than strictly dramatic – that something must change in such cases. Is this demand for detailed consistent recall by a harmed victim of two years before “really the litmus test of credibility?”
It is a remarkable and useful play. But what brings it to life is that truly astonishing performance. TV and film will line up to recruit Comer, but that wooden stage , sharing breath with a riveted silent throng in the dark, is where she belongs. She is astounding.
Box office http://www.atgtickets.com. To 18 June. You might JUST be lucky to get one