It’s True, It’s True, It’s True

There has been a lot already written and discussed about Breach Theatre’s award winning show It’s True, It’s True, It’s True. First performed at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe, It’s True garnered rave reviews and went on to receive the Untapped, The Stage, and The Scotsman Fringe First Awards. There was so much incredible buzz about this show that I was delighted when it returned to the Edinburgh Fringe this year as part of the British Council Showcase.

Geographical and financial constraints had meant I couldn’t make it to the Fringe in 2018 so this year was my chance to finally see this much talked about show. Alas, it wasn’t to be in Edinburgh that I would experience Breach Theatre’s latest theatrical marvel – a clash with the show I was performing in at the Fringe meant I couldn’t make it.

But when I heard that It’s True was embarking on a national tour, my frustrations were calmed. Bristol, on a freezingly cold November evening, was to be the city of my viewing and I was prepared for something unique.

Having seen Breach Theatre’s previous works The Beanfield and Tank, I was familiar with their ‘documentary’ or verbatim style theatre. I had been moved by both pieces, the former exploring the 1985 Battle of the Beanfield and the latter examining the NASA-funded experiments conducted by John C. Lilly and Margaret Howe Lovatt to see if dolphins could learn human language. Powerful politics were in play in both of these productions but nothing really prepared me for the emotional impact It’s True, It’s True, It’s True would have on me.

Under the direction of Billy Barrett, the 1612 trial of Agostino Tassi for the rape of Artemisia Gentilescha is performed by three female actors – Ellice Stevens, Sophie Steer and Kathryn Bond. The drama that unfolds, as prefaced at the start of the show, are translated from the surviving court documents and considering that the action took place over four hundred years ago, the text sizzles with frightening relevance.

As I sat watching Artemisia Gentilesca (played by Ellice Stevens) fight within the Roman court to be believed that she was assaulted and raped by her painting tutor, I could feel this seventeen year old girl’s rage seeping through the centuries and I could feel my own anger bubbling underneath. That a woman, a girl still in her teens, should have to defend herself from accusations of promiscuity and even provoking her attack is both abhorrent and frighteningly familiar. Centuries have passed since the action of this play really took place and yet, we still live in a culture where victims are blamed for their attackers actions, a girl’s virginity is determined by the state of their hymen, and known rapists are still praised as great artists.

Artemisia must endure humiliation and torture in order for her story to be believed and the fact that she went through it all when she was so young, that she was brave enough to expose herself in a culture that was so hostile to women, is so utterly gobsmacking. She was truly a remarkable person, not to mention a talented artist, and that she sought justice for herself so ferociously should be an inspiration. As someone who has been assaulted, her strength and fire evoked incredible emotion within me.

However, it was Sophie Steer’s performance as Agostino Tassi which utterly blew me away. Tassi is the embodiment of toxic masculinity – impudent rage, a micro-managing control freak and a self-absorbed narcissist. He is spared the torture Artemisia endures to authenticate her testimony simply because he is a painter for the Pope – why risk damaging his artist’s hands with the thumbscrews, even if he is a sexual predator?

He screams and preens and shouts and show boats in the courtroom. He intimidates witnesses and he revels in questioning his victim, re-traumatising her like a cat playing with a mouse. Steer’s performance is nuanced in all Tassi’s physical ticks and explosive meltdowns. I have rarely seen such a transformative performance for Steer’s Tassi was  terrifying in its evocation of the many powerful and abusive men we see so frequently in today’s media.

Tassi is Weinstein. Tassi is Trump. Tassi is Polanski. Tassi is Rees-Mogg. Tassi is Farage. Tassi is Johnson.

Yet, this story does not end in the way one would expect. Though the last pages of the court documents have been lost it is known that Artemisia won her case against Tassi – he was exiled from Rome though the sentence was never officially carried out. Artemisia would go on to have a successful career as a painter, being commissioned by the Medici family and Charles I, and would have her own family. She would live on, survive and thrive, but her rapist never received the punishment he was due.

Such is the story for so many rape victims. So often, justice is not served, and while Tassi was found guilty the fact remains that his victim had to endure an emotionally gruelling seven month trial to secure that conviction. So little has changed in four hundred years and the anger at the injustice of that seethes through It’s True.

This truly is a piece of theatre for our times, and it is stunningly executed by a supremely talented cast and crew. Very little has changed with regards to attitudes towards rape and societal victim-blaming in the centuries since Artemisia Gentilescha took Agostino Tassi to court, but this play demands for that change.

Just as Artemisia Gentilescha demands for the truth and justice, so must we.

Star Rating: