First published in The Times, Friday August 17 2018
The Fringe is overflowing with verbatim shows, but there is little to match this latest piece from the award-winning Breach Theatre. While we usually associate verbatim work with contemporary issues and events, this new play is based on surviving transcripts of the 1612 trial of Agostino Tassi for the rape of Artemesia Gentileschi, the Italian baroque painter who became the first woman to be admitted to the Accademia delle Arte del Disegno in Florence.
This notorious episode may have taken place four centuries ago, but there are contemporary parallels. While it is Tassi, the tutor and betrothed of 17-year-old Gentileschi, who is officially in the dock, it is the young woman who has to endure the most humiliating ordeal, including undergoing intrusive medical examinations and even a round of torture using thumbscrews. The show’s title is derived from the powerful moment towards the end of the process when Gentileschi (an amazing portrait of controlled anger by Ellice Stevens) resorts to hurling the words “it’s true” into the room again and again.
Pic: The Other Richard
The story inevitably brings to mind the many incidences of male abuses of power and sense of entitlement over women’s bodies that inspired the #MeToo rallying cry. As portrayed by the impressive Sophie Steer, Signor Tassi, who was under commission to the Pope at the time, appears affronted at the sheer inconvenience of having to give evidence at his own trial.
The faithful recreation of this trial is, by itself, enough to compel and enrage, but the show, devised by the cast of three alongside dramaturge Dorothy Allen-Pickard, and directed by Billy Barrett, is not solely concerned with spotlighting how little has changed for women survivors of rape in 400 years. Drawing on some of Gentileschi’s best-known works, including her unflinching depiction of Judith Slaying Holofernes, the piece also wryly and entertainingly unpicks the ways in which the dominating male gaze has, for centuries, relegated and misrepresented its female subjects.
Pic: The Other Richard
This art history lesson is anything but dusty. A complex scenario is staged with real imaginative flair and an unabashed theatricality. The costumes and lighting, designed by Kitty Hawkins and Lucy Adams, lend a suitably painterly air to proceedings, and the trio of performers (which also includes Kathryn Bond in multiple roles) enjoy themselves to a joyous punk soundtrack.