History is replete with examples of the callous treatment of women, often directly or indirectly as a result of their perceived sense of worth. Centuries ago, it was also virtually unknown for any woman to be afforded any justice in a court of law, her ‘status’ the perennial stumbling block for the status quo… With this in mind, Breach Theatre Company have crafted an extraordinary production, based on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi – arguably the only woman in the 17th century who was celebrated as a painter in her own right. But before receiving artistic patronage from the likes of the Medici family and Charles I, Artemisia endured a horrific ordeal – firstly she was sexually assaulted as a teenager by a friend of her father and then, later in court, put on trial herself for having the temerity to name who raped her and press charges…
Translated from the original Latin and Italian transcripts of the court proceedings in 1612, Ellice Stevens, Kathryn Bond and Sophie Steer respectively play, Artemisia, Tuzia Medaglia (her upstairs neighbour) and Agostino Tassi, the rapist in question. Straight from the off, the parallels between Agostino and the ‘explosive indignation’ of a well-known politician in the news today is immediately apparent. In many ways, Agostino behaves in classic ‘text book fashion’ with regards to gaslighting – telling outright lies, denying his own words and actions in the face of proof, projecting his own faults on to others, making others doubt themselves, and so on.
As someone who has committed sexual violence, one would expect Agostino to be also capable of being unscrupulous, adept at manipulation and to be without a conscience. Initially, however, what is most distressing is Tuzia’s behaviour – ‘throwing shade’ on Artmesia’s testimony and contradicting aspects of the events in question. At this juncture, Madeleine Albright’s famous quote comes to mind, which makes us wonder if the predicament that Artemisia finds herself in more a result of lack of female solidarity than the malfeasance of the patriarchy: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” However, as the play progresses, we see the inconsistencies in Tuzia’s account, and we realise that physical and psychological duress has been applied by Agostino.
But what separates Artemisia’s tale from the untold numbers of women who have been sexually assulted is her gift for painting, and her ability to translate her experiences through visual and allegorical means to the canvas. For Artemisia, the subject of ‘Susanna and the Elders’ and ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ have a special importance – which we see in the play as reenacted tableaus of her own interpretation. The ‘meta’ dimension of her work is readily recognisable, but for the men of the court, the truth that’s staring them in the face isn’t apparent.
For Artemisia, things are further complicated by what happens after her initial ‘encounter’ with Agostino and her ‘acquiescence’ later is hard to comprehend by today’s standards. However, adhering to the archaic notion of ‘only the person that has wronged you can take away your shame’ only goes to show how patriarchal values are assimilated and that historically, women can put their overall ‘well-being’ before their own personal feelings.
When watching this production, one can’t help but have a visceral reaction to Steers’ incendiary performance as the unrepentant Agostino. Similarly, Stevens’ closing speech (which the play’s title hails from) has all the emotionally intensity of John Proctor’s closing remarks from The Crucible – a lone voice in the widerness, the ambient silence deafening… But before this juncture, both Stevens and Bond deliver nuanced performances, their physical composure revealing the conflict between what their characters are not allowed to say, and unfettered discourse about ‘the truth’.
For Artemisia at least, her paintings were the voice she was denied in life…
© Michael Davis 2020
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True streams on the Barbican’s website and YouTube until 30th April.
Join the Watch Party
Join Breach Theatre on 24th April at 7.30pm for an It’s True, It’s True, It’s True watch party, with live tweeting from arts writer Lyn Gardner. The screening will be followed by an Instagram Live Q&A with show writer and director Billy Barrett hosted by writer & producer Amber Massie-Blomfield.