Suzie Miller has experienced two life-changing events in the past year, each as extreme as the other.
The first for the Sydney playwright was winning the UK’s prestigious Olivier award for best new play in April, after her work Prima Facie debuted in London’s West End. The play also landed its Killing Eve star Jodie Comer both the Tony and Olivier awards for best actor, and Miller the Tony nomination for best new play following its Broadway debut.
Just as profound, however, were changes made within the legal system as a direct result of Prima Facie, a play that centres around a young barrister, Tessa, who is renowned for defending men accused of sexual assault. When she finds herself a victim of that very crime, Tessa experiences first-hand the way the legal system is set up to fail victims of sexual assault.
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“I never expected this level of change,” says Miller, in Sydney for the premiere of her latest play, Jailbaby at Griffin Theatre. Most significant was a call she’d had from a UK judge who, after seeing Prima Facie, had amended the way they brief juries before sexual assault cases, alerting them to the impact trauma can have on a victim’s testimony. “When that happened, I thought it might be the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life – to influence that person to change that direction.”
The hard-hitting one-woman play debuted at the 105-seat Griffin in Darlinghurst in 2019 and has now been staged to wide acclaim around the world. A recording of the show is now mandatory viewing for high court judges in Northern Ireland, and it led to the establishment of TESSA (The Examination of Serious Sexual Assault), which is dedicated to redrafting the UK's sexual assault legislation.
Prima Facie the book – penned by Miller – launches in Sydney this September ahead of London and New York, and a feature-film adaptation, starring Oscar-nominated Harriet star Cynthia Erivo, is being shot in London.
And that’s not all. Here is a woman who commutes between her family in Sydney and screenwriting rooms in London and the US, where she’s set up a boutique company creating work for TV. But Miller is no overnight sensation. The first half of the 59-year-old’s professional life was spent as a criminal defence lawyer, devoting her time to working with society’s young, invisible and undesirable – street workers, drug addicts and homeless people.
The then would-be playwright landed a residency at the prestigious National Theatre in London at the same time as she was offered the position of NSW magistrate. She chose the former and never looked back, bringing to life on stage and screen some of the confronting, heart-breaking stories she encountered in her legal career.
One young man’s story that particularly haunted her provided the impetus for Jailbaby. It’s about young AJ who, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, is charged with petty theft and sent to prison, where he becomes a “jailbaby” – a young inmate used for repeat, violent sexual assault, the impact of which will alter his life forever. Miller is aghast at the levels of sexual assault that take place in prison, often against the youngest inmates, and the way society appears to passively accept it.
“What happens in prison is … gang rape,” she says. “It causes great physical and emotional trauma, so when they come out they’re very confused about their sexuality and there’s usually a strong homophobia that was never there before. They’re released onto the streets with this incredible trigger to anger ... completely traumatised. We’ve done that to them in our prison system because we turn a blind eye.”
Miller is adamant Australia should find a way of reforming prison so it’s about rehabilitation: “someone coming out the other end with a different way of approaching the world, not coming out so harmed that the violence is a further threat to the community,” she says, referencing Sweden’s successful rehabilitation-focused prison system.
The Jailbaby rehearsals have given Miller some welcome time in Sydney with her family following the madness of the Olivier wins – which she describes as “life-changing in so many ways” – resulting in not only an avalanche of new offers but international interest in adapting her existing plays for screen. Her recent Sydney Theatre Company sell-out production, RBG: Of Many, One, about the life of US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, is also being adapted for the New York stage.
“I’m more than grateful because there are so many talented playwrights in this country who haven’t yet had the tick of approval by the critical mass or international awards but they’re extremely talented,” she says. “That’s the problem with Australia – I wish we could just appreciate and be confident enough to love the great talent we have already.”
Jailbaby is on at Griffin Theatre until August 19.
If you would like to speak with someone about an experience you have had, or would like information, please call 1800Respect on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800respect.org.au.