Review: It's True, It's True, It's True, Barbican (via YouTube)

Originally performed at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and later broadcasted on BBC4, It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is the latest offering from Breach Theatre, a company that Lyn Gardner called one of the most “formally inventive” out there. It’s fitting then, that this production is one of the first to be made available online during the Coronavirus lockdown, facilitated by the Barbican. For the next 30 days, audiences can watch, for free, Breach’s thrilling exploration of the 1612 trial of Agostino Tassi, and be treated to a piece that is equal parts harrowing and necessary.

Accused of raping 15-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi (Ellice Stevens), Agostino Tassi (Sophie Steer), her tutor and painter to the Pope, is dragged to Rome and forced to face trial. Although Gentileschi provides ample evidence of the assault, Tassi remains stalwart, nevertheless pleading his innocence to great effect. Indeed, when manufactured tales of Gentileschi’s sexual prowess and wanton behaviour supposedly come to light, the focus shifts and the question must be asked, who really is on trial?

Directed by Billy Barrett and jointly devised by the cast, It’s True, It’s True, It’s True’s take on the 17th century trial is deliberately anachronistic: the production blurs the modern day together with the 1600s, with the performances and production designs reinforcing this conflation. Consequently, the trial seemingly exists in a timeless space, with its illustrations of societal sexism applying to any time and all times; its not a dated period piece, but a prescient exploration of modern problems. In as much, the production jumps between the overly performative trial, that seems almost pantomime-like at times with all its posturing and grandstanding, to moments of brutal realism, where men and society abuse and degrade women. Breach pull no punches in these instances: the interactions they portray are harrowing, repulsive, and utterly truthful to real world examples. 

Surprisingly, the most impressive part of It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is that, despite its virtual nature, it creates a truly eerie atmosphere: the large looming shots of the cathedral-like venue, the deep reverb of the intense musical accompaniment, even the rich reds and perfervid purples that illuminate the space; everything builds up a macabre tone. The fact Breach achieve this feat, despite the production being a recording, is especially impressive and heartening – if other virtual productions can follow in their footsteps, we’ll be in good stead theatrically over the next few weeks.

Moreover, throughout the production, there is a beautiful internal conceit of the importance of art. As a painter, Artemisia turns to her artwork as a medium to express and work through her trauma: she imbues her art with the anger and anguish she feels following her rape, using it to communicate her feelings in a way her words don’t do justice to. In a wider sense, Breach seemingly uses It’s True, It’s True, It’s True in a similar way, using the medium of theatre to respond to a society still deeply entrenched in quiet misogyny, conveying the abuse in a way far more viscerally than just words could. It’s a beautiful reminder of the power and value of art and makes the production’s widespread availability even more special.

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True isn’t perfect: the beginning feels bloated with all the necessary exposition, and at time the style devolves too far into surrealism for the cutting satire to find its edge. Nevertheless, Breach Theatre has filled the void created by the lockdown wonderfully, and their production should be watched not only for its entertainment value, but also its sharp, strong message.

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is available online until 30 April 2020. For access, please visit the Barbican website.