Breach Theatre dramatise a 1612 rape trial, to devastating effect
This review is from ‘It's True, It's True, It's True’s run at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe
Breach Theatre are a bracingly unpredictable company: after first making a splash three years ago with their acclaimed show about the Battle of the Beanfield (‘Beanfield’), they returned in 2016 with ‘Tank’, about – of all things – CIA dolphin experiments in the 1960s.
If there is a line between those first two shows and ‘It’s True, It’s True, It’s True’, it’s that squint a bit and they could all be classed as documentary work, mining powerful contemporary resonances out of obscure historical incidents.
‘It’s True, It’s True, It’s True’ is an artfully, eventually devastatingly staged adaptation of a translated transcript of the 1612 trial of Italian painter Agostino Tassi, in a case brought against him by Artemisia Gentileschi, a female painter who he had raped whilst serving as her tutor.
It pointedly uses an all-female cast to reenact the trial, in a steely, stripped back production from Billy Barrett that takes place on a harsh, utalitarian set resembling a painter’s workshop. The cast play multiple roles, but the lasting impression is of the showdown between Ellice Stevens’s clearly-spoken, supernaturally composed Gentileschi, and Sophie Steer’s cruelly cocky Tassi. (They’re joined by Kathryn Bond).
At a #MeToo-charged Fringe, it doesn’t take a genius to discern that this is not a piece critiquing the late Renaissance justice system (well, I guess it kind of is as well), but rather a more universal comment on the nature of rape trials. Gentileschi must have been a stupendously self-possessed woman to go through with a system even more adversarial than our own (towards the end a stumped judge ask if she minds being tortured so they can determine the truth of what she’s saying). But aside from the lurid period details are grim universal truths about the utter grimness of things like publically reliving trauma, being taken to task for not immediately reporting a rape, and attackers getting off with light sentences while their victims live with the pain forever.
Gentileschi’s particular way of dealing with it was to become a massive success and paint large numbers of pictures of Judith beheading Holofernes, something Breach seize upon with a certain amount of satisfaction for a gory, cathartic finale that pulls some triumph to this grim business, set to the euphoric roar of Patti Smith’s ‘Gloria’.