Theatro Technis, London
In 1995, a masseuse working in the home counties reported to the police that she had been raped at knife-point by a client. Although the masseuse, Mrs Liz Harris, a married schoolteacher, offered “extras”, she did not offer the kind of extras demanded by her violent assailant. The police recorded her complaint, then, as is so often the case, did nothing more about it. Until, one year later, a second woman, working for the same agency, reported a startlingly similar attack. A file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service, which looked at the women’s evidence, before declining to prosecute, on the grounds that the evidence of two sex-workers could not be relied on in court. Outraged, the two complainants sought the help of the English Collective of Prostitutes and Women Against Rape, and together made history by bringing to court England’s first-ever private prosecution for rape.
Pursuing Justice, written and directed by Lesley Delminico, an American professor of theatre studies, is a dramatic re-telling of the trial, based on original court transcripts, and while it does much to reinforce the courage and tenacity of the witnesses, it does little to restore any faith you may have in the justice system. At least where rape victims are concerned.
As the judge, Peter Neathy, a professional actor in a semi-professional cast, orders his court to “rise”, your instinct, as a member of the audience is to stand up. The audience becomes the jury, and like any jurors, what you are about to hear will stay with you long after proceedings have concluded.
Through the plain testimony of the first witness, we are afforded a glimpse into the everyday life of a woman who works in the sex industry to make ends meet. (We even hear Donna Summer singing “She Works Hard for the Money”.) Well, no one should have to work this hard. We are witness to extreme misogyny, violence, degradation and blackmail (of the sex-worker by her client). In my role as “juror’, it would seem blindingly obvious that no woman (or man) would voluntarily put themselves through such a tortuous process, if there was the slightest chance that they would be proved a liar at the end.
The lack of professional acting experience among the cast, which might have been problematic in a different play, only enhances the uncomfortable feeling that what you are witnessing is real. Rose Turner combines palpable nervousness with a steely determination to bring authenticity to Mrs Harris.
The second witness, Patsy Whitfield (Cecilia Gragnani), could not be more different from the first. A professional nightclub hostess, whose “sexploits” have previously appeared in a Sunday tabloid, her appearance on the stand immediately exhumes prejudices that you hoped were long buried, yet her testimony, presented without collaboration with the first witness, is the same as before. But, almost inevitably, you feel, her evidence is heard with distain. She is ridiculed and subtly mocked by the quietly spoken, verbally dextrous Andrew Jefferson-Tierney (excellent as defence lawyer Mr Alloway), as essentially unreliable, and the verdict, when it comes, is shocking only its predictability.
Staged as a fundraiser for Women Against Rape and the English Collective of Prostitutes, Pursuing Justice is much more than a verbatim dramatisation of a landmark court case. It forces us to sit in judgement and ask why one life is apparently considered worth more than another, and whether it is right that there can be more than one “class” of victim. As a piece of theatre, Pursuing Justice is outstanding. Despite feeling ever so slightly under-rehearsed, it manages to be brave, uncompromising, challenging – rather like the women who brought the case in the first place – and, sadly, all too topical. Everything that theatre should be. As a reflection of society and its attitudes towards women, it poses many extremely uncomfortable questions. On hearing the jury foreman deliver verdicts in the case of each woman, it is difficult to believe that a prostitute really does “have the same right at anyone else not to be raped”.