Breach Theatre present their award-winning play, It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, about the Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, her poignant paintings and the sexual assault trial that shook Renaissance Rome.
Breach Theatre begin their UK Tour of It’s True, It’s True, It’s True at the Cambridge Junction. Their Fringe First and multiple award-winning new play restages the trial of Agostino Tassi who raped the young Italian artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, in 1612. Tassi had been hired by Gentileschi’s father as a tutor for his daughter and reportedly soon took a liking to the adolescent. Gentileschi thought his attention might result in marriage – a prospect she welcomed. Instead, Tassi’s intentions were far from honourable: one day he gained entry to Artemisia’s home and raped the then 17-year-old girl. It was this act and the subsequent trial – which Gentileschi herself took part in – that obscured the career of now one of the most famous and respected painters of the baroque period.
Led by an all-female ensemble, It’s True, It’s True, It’s True sees a cast of three rotate all parts until they eventually settle into their main roles. Ellice Stevens portrays Artemisia Gentileschi and her fight for justice, equality and truth with power and authority. Additionally, the two equally captivating performances by Kathryn Bond as Gentileschi’s friend Tuzia and Sophie Steer as the accused Agostino Tassi round off the ensemble. Unexpectedly funny in parts, especially Steer’s performance as the contradictory Tassi and Bond’s portrayal of a seemingly naive Tuzia, the actresses skilfully switch between comedy and tragedy, all the while making a statement for female agency and justice.
The play is based on surviving court transcripts documenting Tassi’s trial and which have been translated into conversational English. It’s not only given a modern touch by this contemporary translation, the use of funky music and light effects, but also by the unfortunate universality and timelessness of the rape trial that does not differ much from ones held in the present day. A multimedia performance company that stages politically motivated plays based on historic occurrences, Breach Theatre here sticks to the core events of the rape trial, revealing both Tassi’s ludicrous denial (“Do you really think I’d be interested in a girl like that?”) and accusations levelled at Gentileschi herself for indecent behaviour. The trial was only justified because Gentileschi was a virgin at the time of her rape and Tassi, who had initially faked interest in marrying Artemisia as a way of silencing her and continuing a sexual relationship, later refused to redeem his promise and was found to have been married to another woman all along. As a female artist at a time when men dominated the arts, Gentileschi had to assert herself both as a painter and a woman, demanding justice for her violation and being humiliated even more in the process, (i.e. through a genital examination). Calm and assertive, Stevens’ Gentileschi stands up for herself and tries to reclaim her honour in a trial that gripped Renaissance Rome.
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True revolves around a woman who uses her art as a means of revenge and whose experiences informed some of her most famous paintings. Breach Theatre stays true to its documentary roots in staging two of Gentileschi’s best known paintings, both of which show biblical women responding to male sexual harassment with agency and authority. First, in the re-enactment of Susanna and the Elders (painted in 1610 around the time of the rape), Stevens/ Gentileschi takes on the role of Susanna who is sexually harassed by two men when taking a bath. It is one of the few depictions of the biblical scene clearly connoted as traumatic. The scene functions as Gentileschi’s own commentary on her creative process and identification with Susanna in relation to her own rape. The play does not shy away from nudity, as painted by Gentileschi, projecting her own despair onto Susanna and now cleverly being reflected in the re-enactment in which the two women almost become one, connected by their inability to escape the objectification and violence of men.
The other painting acted out is Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614-20). It is a popular scene in early Renaissance art, one which Gentileschi painted several times as it shows women dominating over men. Both scenes stage the paintings in detail, from clothing to posture, techniques of chiaroscuro through lighting and background. This showcases the close interplay of Gentileschi’s personal life with her art, as well as her seeking out strong, powerful women at a time where she experienced the imbalance of gender more than ever.
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is not only a negotiation of the relationships between Gentileschi and Tassi – the man who raped her but with whom Gentileschi afterwards had sexual relations in the hope he would marry her and rehabilitate her honour – but also Gentileschi and Tuzia, the friend who ignored her plea for help and the one who supposedly let Tassi into the house in the first place. Spatiality is an important indicator of the three subjects’ positions to one another, not only literally on the intricate ladders that constitute the set but also more figuratively in the personal relationships between the three that are indicated in and emerge from the dialogue.
At the end of the re-enacted trial, Gentileschi stands bare-breasted in front of the audience, literally stripped of her dignity and tortured with thumbscrews (which are substituted in the play, ironically, by golden paint, dripping down her hands). The very fact that Gentileschi and not Tassi eventually had to undergo torture via thumbscrews to verify her testimony demonstrates the gender disparity that is innate to a hierarchy that does everything to protect guilty men – pronounced by sparing Tassi’s hands – while caring little or not at all about granting the same protection and consideration to victimised women. In fact, Gentileschi’s hands were gravely injured in the process of her having to justify her testimony.
Pointing at almost every member of the audience, she demands that “It’s true”, she did not lie or make the accusations against Tassi up. That Gentileschi is not believed is outrageous, as much nowadays as it was four centuries ago. In an age where many survivors of sexual violence are not believed but instead blamed, scrutinised and made to undergo humiliating and traumatising hearings and (physical) examinations, her hands dripping with gold paint make a powerful statement about agency, the power of art, and the importance of demanding justice for oneself. At the same time, it visualises the sad truth that not much has changed since the 1610 trial; victim-blaming is still a common occurrence and many sexual abusers and rapists walk free, while their victims have to live in shame, pain, and anger about not having justice. Hence, It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is as much a play about Gentileschi’s fight for justice as it is a celebration of her work and passion for art. The play highlights her success and legacy as a painter, and shows that art has the potential to offer release, hope and healing from past traumas.
Breach Theatre will tour It’s True, It’s True, It’s True throughout the UK until late November. For more information or to book tickets click the following links: Live Theatre, Newcastle (22nd-23rd Oct), York Theatre Royal (24th Oct), Square Chapel, Halifax (25th Oct), East Riding Theatre, Beverley (26th Oct), The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford, (29th Oct), The Pound, Corsham (30th Oct), Warwick Arts Centre (31st Oct – 1st Nov), Salisbury Playhouse (2nd Nov), Theatre Royal Plymouth (5th – 9th Nov), The Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol (12th -16th Nov), Leeds Playhouse (21st – 23rd Nov).
Breach Theatre have partnered with various organisations and centres who support survivors of sexual violence, some of which will be present at the shows. Part of the proceeds from the play will be donated to these organisations.
To find out more about Artemisia Gentileschi see the biography by Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art which includes transcripts of the trial; or the Young Adult novel Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough. The National Gallery, London, will be holding an exhibition, Artemisia, devoted to Gentileschi and her work in April 2020.