It’s True, It’s True, It’s True: Artemesia on Trial at Breach Theatre online
This piece of punk theatre tells the story of the trial of painter Agostino Tassi for the alleged rape of his student, Artemisia Gentileschi, when she was 15. The surviving court transcripts from the 1612 trial in Rome have been translated from Latin and Italian into conversational modern English to tell this hideous story.
Ellice Stevens, Kathryn Bond and Sophie Steer appear on stage to pounding rock music, with industrial metal tools forming the set and slamming home the contemporary parallels with this old text. Steer as Tassi captures the combination of smarm and violence still employed successfully by sexual predators to this day with repellent believability and effect. Tassi takes the stand and admits to having been in prison three times before this allegation. He dismisses these as misunderstandings and trivialities, just as he regards the current case. He name drops the Pope and scandalises Gentileschi’s name, accusing her of being a whore whose own father had an incestuous relationship with her, lining up witnesses to corroborate his version. They speak of someone who was 15 at the time as a femme fatale, a fallen women. No one ever morally interrogates the men who supposedly visited her. One witness says he saw her “stood shamelessly at a window”, another is outraged that she is a public woman – that is, a woman who went out in public.
For Gentileschi, the trial becomes a scene of degradation, shown by Stevens stripping down to her underwear for parts of it, highlighting the exposure and vulnerability. She is asked to repeat her version of events numerous times, she is blamed and belittled. We learn that Tassi and an accomplice stole one of her paintings as it may have aroused suspicion about him. Her body and art have been defiled.
One of the most effective parts of the play is a tableau of one of Gentileschi’s paintings, Susanna and the Elders. Stevens is Susanna, taking a bath in her garden when two old perverts creep up. Although they have broken in, she is the one who is “rude” for not entertaining them. They remind her that no one else is there and that it’s their word against hers – and, as it usually still is, a man’s word is more valuable.
Directed especially for TV by Billy Barrett and Rhodri Huw, the production is suffused with fury. Gentileschi revels in her description of her painting of Judith beheading Holofernes, a subject she would return to a further seven times in her career. She relishes in the gruesome, visceral revenge.
The most shocking part is when Gentileschi is asked to submit to mild torture to prove her veracity. Tassi cannot submit to the thumbscrew as “he is a painter”, and the scene contains a striking moment in which he shows convincing sympathy, comforting his student as he plunges her hands back into the screws. That image is the most sickening and memorable as it shows how the artist is capable of hiding his violent, raging face when he wants.
What is most remarkable about this play is how little attitudes have changed in the intervening 400 years. We may no longer use thumbscrews on women trying to get justice for rape, but every other tactic is still alive and well.
Photos: The Other Richard
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True: Artemesia on Trial is available on Breach Theatre’s Youtube Channel from 31st March until 30th April 2020. For further information or to book visit the production company’s website here.