It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is a play which focuses on a specific event in history and makes it tactile, devastating, and unapologetically savage. It is a testament to the merits of a meticulous devising process that honours original source material with stylish deference and grace. It is a piece of verbatim theatre transcribed from a 17th century courtroom transcript, which restages the judicial process that demonised the young painter Artemisia Gentileschi after she sought justice after being raped by Papal favourite, the painter Agostino Tassi.
The play places the audience in the heart of Rome – the epicentre of cultivated industries and powerful men. Actors Kathryn Bond, Sophie Steer, and Ellice Stevens multi-role and switch between the prosecution and the prosecuted with marksman precision. The production excels in capturing a sense of scale: adept transformations and transitions produce a fully-realised world of laymen, lords and lawyers, who are all stakeholders in outrage.
The trial of Tassi, 400 years ago, is disturbingly reminiscent of modern high-profile sex scandals. Artemisia’s fight for justice guarantees her entry into an exclusive and grotesque gentlemen’s club: a world of rape apologism and victim-shaming, where all you need to suffocate the truth is a readily available supply of character assassinations and camaraderie. In this play, the male unit works hard to obfuscate and obliterate the truth at any cost. Billy Barrett’s direction ensures that every word is carefully placed, every interaction is measured, and every moment of institutional apathy is torturous. The points of high emotion are well-earned and the smug satisfaction of Steer’s Tassi is atrocious.
The script that Breach theatre have devised is a masterclass in historic adaptation. The audience is reminded throughout the performance that this really happened. It is adapted in the sense that words were translated and a theatrical structure was imposed upon the source material; it is not an invention, it is not an exploration of a theme – it is true. The verbatim transcript is mixed with asides and interludes, and there is a stunning moment of ekphrasis that is profoundly lyrical and provides the lasting refrain of the play.
Luke W. Robson’s set design blends the functional furniture of an artist’s studio with the clinical austerity of a courtroom. There is a wonderful aesthetic at play here – the ichor and dyes of painters are erased by a monochrome judicial system obsessed with scrubbing out the colourful scandal – paintings are torn down; bright fabrics are treated with disdain (Kitty Hawkin’s costumes are severe); blood is referred to throughout the script, and the colour it matches is gold. Barrett positions the rape of Artemisia as an affront to a world which should honour colour and the truth.
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, is a resonant reminder of a historic unfairness, which appallingly still exists today. It is a reminder that there really is no difference between history and ‘his story’, and should be considered a vital piece of artistic artillery in the fight to come.
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is playing at Underbelly (Cowgate) until 26 August. For more information and tickets, click here.