Thursday 21st November 2019 at Leeds Playhouse.
‘… this is the story of how a woman took revenge through her art to become one of the most successful painters of her generation.’
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True tells a tale of old in a dynamic, brilliantly modern production, balancing uncomfortable truths with comic asides. It tells a hideous but inspiring tale of bravery and triumph in the face of betrayal with plenty of flair and a sharp, sustained glare of judgement. In 1612, a trial takes place. It should be the trial of Agostino Tassi for the rape of painter Artemisia Gentileschi. In reality it feels all too close to a trial of the victim. In this warped dynamic lies the full force of Breach Theatre’s socio-political commentary – it’s set a long long time ago but it feels all too current and familiar.
Ellice Stevens gives a powerful performance throughout as Artemisia Gentileschi. Shedding tears and clothes and dignity, she looks pleadingly out into the audience as those she seeks help from each turn away or tighten the screws. She rages against doubt and stands her ground even as the foundations shift. She’s vulnerable, yes, but she’s also measured and rational and incredibly compelling. It’s in her unwavering strength in the face of such insurmountable odds that Stevens makes Artemisia our she-ro.
The tragedy of all the women forced to need their rapists to escape the life of shame created by the crime is spotlit with the most devastating power here. Details of the period of time following the rape – the assertions and continued control over Artemisia are curdlingly potent and the criminally assured male entitlement depicted with such venom is an undeniable middle finger to the cat-callers and gas lighters alive and well today.
Sophie Steer raises hackles as Agostino Tassi, a man whose towering sense of invincibility is surpassed only by his ego. A loath-able male isn’t too tall an order, but a loath-able male with thick layers of calculating self-service and smug certainty taking up permanent residence across his face? That’s a tall order that Steer well and truly delivers. Kathryn Bond finds comedy and calamity in Tuzia, keeper of the keys to Artemisia’s house as well as to her truth. There’s a comic flippancy in early scenes which gives way to a kind of incongruous childish petulance, something which only later gives way to more sympathetic scenes.
The three make swift work of pacy character shifts, each offering up fleeting appearances of various people forming the courtroom populace. We see a series of testimonies from civilians along with those running the show – and make no mistake, it is a show, with Tassi as the ringmaster. While the production does justice to the defence with a sharp tap dance of accusations and rebuttals, it primarily harpoons those responsible for the injustice at hand with scathing caricatures of authority figures and the entitled elite – those with only their own patriarchal interests to serve, naturally.
The play skewers predatory men, but it also highlights the betrayal of women by other women. The need for self-preservation is a powerful thing and the play handles complex issues well. Every woman we see is little more than a cardboard cut out to the men present – if they take the right shape to illustrate a claim, great. If not, it’s the shredder for you and your useless testimony. Tuzia’s character inspires sympathy as well as condemnation but in truth it’s difficult to retain perspective of just how dangerous life would be for this woman as we sit and simmer in our contemporary reactions.
We’re told that this play ‘asks how much has changed in the last four centuries’ and in answer it offers damning echoes ricocheting between then and now. Women may not be quite so beholden to the men in their lives or the fantastical worth of virginity, but the treatment of rape survivors and victims of assault certainly finds loud parallels here. While the accuser/accused dynamic remains in favour of those with power and connections – typically the male – the systems for victim-blaming have become subtler but no less present, from interview rooms to newspapers to internet trolls.
As the final pages of the court transcripts are lost, it’s down to careful writing and imagination to bring Artemisia’s ordeal to life and to bring the tale to an end. ‘It’s true’ becomes all things – accusation, self-validation, a plea to be heard and a prayer for justice. In Stevens’ mouth, the simple words take on a spectrum of meaning and anyone who raised an eyebrow at the play’s title will leave suitably haunted by the words as they leave. Not much catches the desperation of a victim facing doubt and derision so resoundingly and in this production it becomes a call to action for right now. History’s dirty laundry often makes for scathing modern drama and rarely does it land with such a defiant thud as it does in It’s True, It’s True, It’s True.
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True plays Leeds Playhouse until November 23rd 2019 and you can find tickets here.