Devised by Breach Theatre
Director: Billy Barrett
Dramaturg: Dorothy Allen-Pickard
Set Designer: Luke W. Robson
Costume Designer: Kitty Hawkins
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
After two award-filled years at the Edinburgh Fringe, It’s True, It’s True, It’s True has embarked on a seven-week UK tour of mostly one-nighters. Devised by the members of the cast, using verbatim material from 1612, and written finally by Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett, it takes an original approach to a celebrated 17th century trial, an approach that manages to be doubly contemporary, to the events themselves and to the present day.
The story of Artemisia Gentileschi has huge dramatic potential for the 21st century. Artemisia was a talented teenage painter – her father was also an artist – when Agostino Tassi, who was supposedly giving her advice on painting, raped her. One suspects that in 17th century Rome such things were frequently hushed up, but Artemisia took Tassi to court and after seven months won her case. The ambiguities and contradictions are many: for instance, he was found guilty and sentenced to a brief and perfunctory exile, but she was the one subjected to the torture of thumb screws, and, more pleasingly, he having been spared thumbscrews because he was an artist, she was the one who later gained such fame that she painted for the Medicis and Charles I.
Can her work as an artist be seen as her revenge on the male establishment? Breach Theatre thinks so and there is little reason to disagree. Gentileschi’s core subjects for her art appear to have been Susanna and the Elders (male voyeurism and hypocritical attack in female morality) and Judith and Holofernes (the woman strikes back).
Amazingly transcripts of the trial – admittedly incomplete – exist and the great skill of Breach Theatre’s concept and Billy Barrett’s direction lies in the integration of different elements, for instance, straight presentations of trial evidence alongside a bit of Benny Hill/Carry On fun which is a giggle, but also illustrates graphically how male artists saw Susanna and the elders and how Gentileschi differed. The music mix, from Monteverdi to punk, also works well, though the finale to Patti Smith’s Gloria is an indulgence, with lots of arm pumping and big hair shaking – the point has already been made, most effectively. Similarly, while the translation and modernisation of the Latin and Italian of the trial is done with great skill, the demotic of some of the interpolated scenes can be a bit self-conscious.
The flexible three-woman cast flits skilfully between parts, the Judge in particular played by somebody not being interrogated, though each of the actor centres on one part: Artemisia, Tassi and Tuzia, a neighbour whose role in protecting Artemisia and/or encouraging Tassi is highly ambiguous. The initial prevailing mood is coolly austere, with all three actors in dark male suits and white shirts and the action taking place amid suggestions of a painter’s workshop, metal stools/steps the only furniture.
Sophie Steer’s Tassi’s insouciance at the outset, casually forgetting how many times he has been in prison, dismissing the offences nonchalantly, is witty and amusing, but later she brings out his lies and arrogance in an increasingly impassioned performance. Kathryn Bond, too, begins by trying to present a self-serving version of events: her Tuzia is primly shocked – or appears to be – but ends up desperately defensive. The shift from coolly legalistic to emotionally raw is best shown in Ellice Stevens’ outstanding Artemisia: understated at first, once she takes on the role of Susanna, her physical nakedness is reflected in her feelings and mental state. Even when she dresses again, slowly and not quite completely, the poise is gone from the character as from her appearance.
Finally, damaged and bruised as she may be, Artemisia triumphs, via the on-stage re-enactment of the beheading of Holofernes and, more prosaically, the narration of her future successes gained through “painting my experience”.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed