From Tiny Stables Stage to London and Now Broadway

From Tiny Stables Stage to London and Now Broadway

Image: Jodie Comer in Prima Facie. Photographer: Helen Murray.

Playwright Suzie Miller’s unique blend of legal nous, firebrand feminism and great story-telling has seen her works performed on the world’s smallest and greatest stages. Martin Portus spoke to the Australian playwright ahead of her Broadway debut.  

She doesn’t brag about it, but Suzie Miller finally earns more as a playwright than she did as a lawyer. And it’s about time. Her hit play Prima Facie, with Killing Eve star Jodie Comer as a sassy lawyer suddenly turned sexual assault victim, won over London last year and opened on Broadway in April 2023. It recently won the Olivier award for Best New Play, with Jodie Comer named Best Actress, while it also collected three What’s On Stage Awards in London, including Best Play. In New York, Jodie Comer has been nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.

Prima Facie began at Sydney’s tiny Griffin Theatre in 2019 with an astounding Sheridan Harbridge in the role, in a Lee Lewis production which is now running in Melbourne, and a new production opens next month in Adelaide. And Miller’s newest play, about another lawyer, the firebrand feminist and late US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a life of RBG so beautifully created by actor Heather Mitchell, is a sublime mix of tenderness, wit and legal research.

RBG: Of Many, One is certain to have a long life, and overseas productions of Prima Facie,  translated and adapted to each country’s law on sexual assault, are this year sprouting like mushrooms. Budding playwrights take note: one woman plays with a large social canvas have a good economic head start in getting up; especially when so well timed as Miller’s are to the zeitgeist today of violence to women.

So yes, all that should be worth a few dollars more than being a lawyer, to say nothing of Miller’s avalanche of other projects – her completed novel of Prima Facie and expected screenplay; an Aussie feminist rom-com; and a further screenplay about historic corruption in Northern Ireland; and a new play opens at Griffin in July, Jailbaby, this time about sexual violence against young men in prisons.

Image: Jailbaby. Credit: Brett Boardman and Alphabet Studio.

Born almost 60 years ago in Melbourne’s St Kilda, “before it was cool to live there”, from a modest background, Miller’s near manic output and drive to achieve started early. She’s always had jobs, big and small, and at her Catholic school she excelled in science and maths, partly to please her strict and remote father.  

The careers advisor at school gave her just one option.  

“She said, I hear you’re good at chemistry, at art and at talking,” Miller remembers. “So she looked up her big book and came up with hairdressing! You can choose the colours, she said, mix the chemicals and talk to the clients. An inspired choice actually, and at that stage almost half the class had left school at the age of 15 – to become hairdressers.”

Instead, Miller became the first in her wider family to go to university, graduating from Monash as an immunologist, a science and habit of research which reappears in her playwriting. But in the quiet laboratory she soon realised that she was too much a talker.  So she turned to the law, graduating from the University of NSW. She was happy to cover her tracks from Melbourne and, in preparation for dealing with Sydney’s legal elite, make herself classless.

“In Sydney suddenly the sun came out,” she says.  “I do have a chip on my shoulder about class which you can see in my plays, and at Monash everyone was educated in private schools and I suddenly saw how different I was.”  

Image: Suzie Miller, with the MTC poster featuring Sheridan Harbridge.

In Prima Facie, Miller’s feeling of being an underprivileged outsider vitally informs the role of Tessa, as the ambitious lawyer struggles up in an elite male world. Later the courtroom turns against her. 

Playing the role In the London production, Jodie Comer relished this class contempt and – coming from playing the Russian spy in Killing Eve – returned to her own strong Liverpudlian accent.  As Tessa she opened the play so brash and fearless in her contempt that some Brits in the audience found it too much.

Suzie Miller herself started working in corporate law but with, she says, “a burning desire to change the world”, she moved quickly to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. It promotes achieving social justice through changing the law – just as she would later chart Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s career similarly achieving feminist advances through changing laws in the US.  Her future husband was also at the Centre, now NSW Supreme Court judge Robert Beech-Jones.  Miller says his “posh” double-barrelled name belies a poor Welsh ancestry and Tasmanian childhood.  

“He did it tough and for the first time in my legal career I met someone who was like me; I could be who I was, I didn’t have to hide my background, or tiptoe around issues. It was someone who really got me.”  

Image: Sheridan Harbridge, who first created the role of Tessa, and has pllayed it around Australia, with Suzie Miller.

Still a lawyer but “drawn to do more with words”, Miller was soon back at the University of NSW doing another degree, a Masters in Theatre and Film, and later across the road at NIDA doing the Playwrighting Course.  Her first major play was Cross Sections at the Old Fitzroy Theatre in 2004. It drew powerfully on the nearby stories of the street kids, sex workers and homeless of Kings Cross, who Miller represented during her years as advocate solicitor with the Shopfront Youth Legal Service.  

“It was the most crisis driven place you could ever work in. I became very anxious and terrified for the safety of my own two children. I thought this was the real world until a counsellor said, no this isn’t the real world, it’s simply the worst ever day in somebody else’s life. And you just happen to be present, tomorrow will be better and they’ll be laughing.

“I think I just fell in love with my characters, as my clients, and had the chance in the theatre to write those stories, just as my job was to tell their stories in court to try to keep them out of prison.”

Image: Heather Mitchell in RBG Of Many, One. Sydney Theatre Company. Photographer: Prudence Upton.

Cross Sections was picked up by the Sydney Opera House, and the playwright was off. After the 2005 Cronulla riots, and legally representing rioters from both sides, Miller then explored how the strength of mateship across cultures was destroyed by tribal loyalties. Her extroverted ability to make new connections led her to a mentorship with the late esteemed US playwright Edward Albee while writing the script; luckily he liked it.  

In Sold she dramatized Sydney’s obsession with real estate, characteristically conducting extensive interviews with the agents.  And in Reasonable Doubt Miller put the courtroom on stage with two jurors in a relationship agreeing to vote against the others, before reasonable doubts then emerge about their relationship.  

Miller claims she wrote this play as an experiment, making it inexpensive to stage, a two-hander set in a hotel room, and sent it to every theatre company in Australia.  At the time, she says, all artistic directors were male. Not one replied; she thinks no one even read it. 

“I remember this talk then of theatre companies not picking up women writers. I was shocked coming from the law which I thought was the most conservative area, and the arts were very social justice orientated and aware.  But in law if you got good grades, you were employed, but not the arts. They say, oh it’s not about gender, it’s about taste, merit and good writing. With it not being about a grade, you couldn’t argue with that.”

Image: Sheridan Harbridge in Prima Facie. Photogra[her: Brett Boardman.

It was a lesson on how patriarchal prejudices and opinions are encoded as unarguable, objective truths. Miller returns to this frequently, especially in her courtroom plays, and notably in how the evidence of female victims is treated in sexual assault charges.  The bright spark lawyer of Prima Facie, so slick in defending men against such charges, is thwarted in court when having to bring those charges after her own rape.

“The system of law is a construct, we’ve created it by human minds and the dominant culture of those minds, as to how we decide what is fair and whether someone is to be held accountable or not.  Its laughable how lawyers try to make out something is objective and scientific in its processes. It’s not. If you don’t fit the model, you may not get justice.

“Say you’re Aboriginal, and you’re in front of a white, middle class male heterosexual judge, who only mixes with those of his own background, and he says that’s not relevant to the story. It’s very hard to contextualise a certain thing if you’re the only person there who can speak to it.”

Meanwhile, ignored at home, Reasonable Doubt was staged at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival and in New York, where it won a best play award.  Miller turned down the offer to be a magistrate, upped stumps, and herded Robert and the kids off to London.  

Image: Caroline Craig in State Theatre Company South Australia's April / May 2023 production of Prima Facie. Photographer: Matt Byrne.

Somehow, she had won a one-year residency at the National Theatre, where she developed her play about a married man who at the age of ten had murdered a toddler. Transparency drew on Miller’s huge legal experience of rehabilitation processes, and where to seek responsibility for such a murder, a boy not yet adult or the “wider village”.

In freezing London, she and the kids rode bikes and “lived on a pound a day”; but after 18 months they returned to Sydney (from where Miller continues commuting to London). In her bag was a play, also developed with the National Theatre, which Griffin premiered in 2015. 

An abstract tale, Caress/Ache is about human touch, its power, pleasure and betrayal. With definitions of touch projected on the set, some were critical of the play’s clinical, science class style, of it being more a thesis than a play.  It’s a feature of Miller’s writing – and reaction – which would be repeated.

Central to Suzie Miller’s successful career is that she never stays home long.  She has a relentless  capacity to build connections and then collaborations with directors, festivals and companies, big but often small, and say yes to every offer of a residency around the world.

At a residency in Toronto she wrote a play about a local mine disaster; two residencies in Scotland produced In the Heart of Danby Park and for the Edinburgh Fringe an historic crime thriller with a magician detective.  She’s well-known in Scotland, Northern Ireland and parts of France and Britain, and now of course in London and beyond.

Back home, in Perth she’s developed a number of plays, notably Dust in 2014 with Black Swan, about a catastrophic red dust storm.  Barking Gecko and the Perth Festival also commissioned Miller to develop two different works about the private thoughts and fears of young people.

So Miller again took to comprehensive, intimate research recording heartfelt anxieties in the schools, homes, skateparks and wheatfields of WA.  

Brisbane in particular likes having her around.  A favourite play of hers, The Mathematics of Longing, was premiered by La Boite Theatre in 2017. With tales of first love, family tragedy and human defiance, each scene begins with a new maths theorem chalked onto the floor as a way to define behaviours.  It was part homage to Miller’s maths-loving Dad, who had recently died, and is almost religious in its science.

“It was the elegance of maths I wanted to share, its beauty, without using the word, maths. The play is about how insignificant we are in in this immense universe, and yet how significant we are in our life.”

Image: Broadway's John Golden Theatre

Queensland University of Technology gave her a generous scholarship. She wrote a PhD on the process of writing the play, and finding a way to talk about maths in the theatre and decode complex ideas.

“So yes, I became a doctor. But I only use it on my frequent flyers, in case I can get an upgrade.”

Miller is thrilled this month at the Adelaide Writers Festival to be interviewed with the famed British writer Sir Tom Stoppard whose own plays about maths and science has had a huge impact on her.

Other commissions came her way in Brisbane and now flow in from other places. The National Theatre wants a sequel to Prima Facie which will explore teenage masculinity in a family setting.  And then there’s the films she wants to talk about.

Suzie Miller spoke to Martin Portus for the State Library of NSW oral history collection on leaders in the performing arts; the full interview is on the Library’s website. 


Prima Facie

Anna K

The Mathematics of Longing


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