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It’s True, It’s True, It’s True: Artemisia On Trial – Breach Theatre Online

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Creators: Breach Theatre

Director: Billy Barrett

Available to watch online for the rest of the month, It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is Breach Theatre’s Edinburgh hit of 2018, and which was supposed to be playing at The Barbican at the end of March. This verbatim show is based on the courtroom transcripts of 1612 that discuss the rape of the Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi by fellow painter Agostino Tassi. As the play’s title indicates, all what follows is true.

Artemisia’s father has pressed charges against his daughter’s tutor for failing to keep his promise to marry her. Tassi proclaims that there was no such agreement, and that he was never alone with Artemisia, that a neighbour Tuzia always acted as chaperone. Artemisia then describes how Tuzia left them one time, and then how she was raped by Tassi. Asked by the judge, why she didn’t report the crime at the time, she replies that after the rape Tassi had promised to marry her. An abhorrent offer, but at least through marriage Artemisia’s reputation could be salvaged.

Atmospherically filmed in an old chapel, the show’s opening scenes are gripping as various people are called to give evidence. Dressed in dinner jackets with oversized shirt cuffs, the actors first take turn to play the judge, but soon they settle into single roles. As Tassi, Sophie Steer is tight-lipped and sinister, believing that his position as painter to the Pope will be enough to see him acquitted. Tassi is more frightening when he is calm, and it seems a shame when Steer loses her temper and shouts.

As Artemisia, Ellice Stevens is excellent, her face incredulous when she realises that instead of Tassi, it is she who is on trial. The judge even allows Tassi to question her as if she is the guilty one. The camera allows us to see the tears that stream from Stevens’ face as she becomes increasingly exasperated with proceedings. Kathryn Bond is Tuzia the sulky and duplicitous chaperone and also the judge who decides that testimonies should be carried out under torture.

The subjects of Artemisia’s paintings are used as evidence, and watching online it is easy to pause the play in order to view these pictures, full of intrigue, violence and Caravaggesque chiaroscuro. The actors also produce tableaux of two of her most famous pictures, Susanna and the Elders and Judith Slaying Holofernes, intending to demonstrate that, despite being based on stories from the Old Testament, these images are autobiographical. Some art historians suggest that critics have emphasised Artemisia’s life and struggles more than the artwork, and it would have been interesting to see what position the National Gallery would have taken in their now postponed exhibition, Artemisia’s first in the UK and which was due to open this month.

For most of the show, the action stays in 1612, but the heavy metal guitar music that plays between scenes foretell that Breach Theatre will link Artemisia’s mission to be believed to similar events of the present day. The plays moves stealthily to declare Artemisia and all the women she painted as feminists through a loud, Riot Grrrl party, and it’s to Breach Theatre’s credit that they succeed in this abrupt jump to modern day sensibilities. But this time slip allows for hope in that women will eventually believed and that what they say is true.

Runs here until 30 April 2020

 

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