It is something that is often forgotten, but film and TV stars often have theater careers as well. That live experience is an extraordinary experience. A stage performance suddenly brings those unattainable and admired actors and actresses close, right in front of you. That’s what theater does.
In the Netherlands, we have learned a lot from this in recent years, thanks to the star status of Ivo van Hove as a director. He was asked for productions with, among others, Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche, Ruth Wilson, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston and Michael C. Hall.
These productions can be seen sparsely in the Netherlands. In England and the United States it is more likely to see such actors at work. For example, Jodie Comer can currently be admired for nine weeks in Prima Facie, a production in London. Comer is the star of TV series Killing Eve, next to Sandra Oh. Her Villanelle, a rock-hard hit man, plays Comer with a disarming coolness, in a fizzy cocktail of irony, cheerful arrogance and superiority. From that role it’s a small leap of faith: if James Bond becomes a Jamie again, then with Comer’s delightful, mocking smile.
Anything but cool
The 29-year-old actress plays the solo at the intimate Harold Pinter Theater in the West End: 20 seats wide, 20 rows deep, and balconies; similar in atmosphere to the Leidse Schouwburg. And she’s as awesome as you hope she’ll be: unlike in Killing Eve, anything but cool. This divisive courtroom drama about sexual violence is a 100-minute monologue and Comer pulls out all the stops to keep the audience on their toes.
First of all, she introduces her character Tessa, a successful young lawyer, with a walk over the large tables, in the decor dominated by walls with archive folders. Graceful hand movements, clenched fists and yes, also some ironic asides underline her self-confidence and cunning.
Tessa believes unconditionally in justice. If she gets suspects released, it is because the public prosecutor and the police do not have their work in order. She is regularly assigned sex offenses. She demonstrates how she puts witnesses, victims, at ease and then points out the inconsistencies in their statements and wins cases. That’s how the law works, she believes.
At her law firm, she makes love one evening with a colleague, Julian. The appointment afterwards goes smoothly: eating out, taxi to her house, drinking more, kissing. Until she has to throw up. She feels sick, nauseous and dirty, but Julian still wants sex. Not her. He puts his hand over her mouth, holds her by her wrists and does what he wants. Her resistance – biting, yelling, yelling no – is in her head. She paralyzes.
Until then, Comer speaks at a fast pace. Lively, but in an unstoppable flow of words. And loud, because unfortunately without a radio microphone, the attribute that makes the play so much more natural in Dutch theater. Only when she has told how she is being raped is there a moment of silence. Tessa flees her own apartment in her tattered green dress. She is outside in the rain. The water settles on her head and the stage.
Her mother comforts her with much understanding and a sandwich with strawberry jam – a touching detail. Then follows her transformation from lawyer to victim in the justice system, when she decides Julian can’t get away with his act. Immediately the realization dawns that she is putting her career and name on the line.
The case comes before 782 days. And despite her experience, Tessa allows herself to be manipulated as a witness. She’s no different from the witnesses she tripped herself. Her answers are confused, powerless, inconsistent. Tessa picks herself up with an argument about the failing legal system. The law on sexual violence turns on the wrong axis, she argues, and does not fit in with the system of truth-finding created by generations of men. One in three women is a victim of sexual assault, she says, and she urges the audience – the theater audience – to look at a woman on the right and a woman on the left. “One of us.” She loses the case. Her last words: “Something has to change.”
In this demanding solo, Comer takes you completely into the pain of her character and the tilted conviction about what right and truth should be. What the text lacks in nuances, she brings in her playing, which is alternately witty, vulnerable and clever, in her flawless diction and with unmistakable charisma.
Also read this interview with Jodie Comer about Killing Eve: ‘People sometimes forget how dangerous my character is’
The effect is there. The importance of the fight against sexual violence does not need to be emphasized, but for a Dutch spectator this performance hurts a little harder in the week that the national mustache declares on TV to have raped a woman with a candle and becomes an admired artist and theater maker. convicted of assault.
British newspapers and online media outdid each other last week in their praise of Comer. This praise, incidentally, was accompanied by the necessary reservations for the schematic, doctrinal aspects of the play by author Suzie Miller. Comer’s performance was commended as “astonishing,” “even better than on screen,” “theatrical greatness in the making,” “phenomenal.” For those who missed a ticket: the performance will be filmed and will be via National Theater Live on July 21 to be seen in cinemas† Still on a screen: the circle again.