It’s True, It’s True, It’s True – Review – Leeds Playhouse
By Eve Luddington, November 2019
In 1612, Rome was gripped by a seven-month trial in which the Pope’s artist, Agostino Tassi, was accused of rape by his painting pupil, Artemisia Gentileschi, later to become a successful artist in her own right.
Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True stages extracts from the court transcript, translated into modern English. It interweaves those with scenes of their own to illustrate the known facts of the case, illuminate aspects of Gentileschi’s life and work, and communicate a message resoundingly pertinent to the 21st century.
The directness and intensity of the piece suits the Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse’s intimate and versatile new theatre – but the intensity of the audience experience before any show begins there, is less welcome. We arrive early because the seats are unnumbered and we’re squashed together in a corridor sniffing each other’s armpits. We’re not allowed into the space until everyone’s been admitted to the Courtyard Theatre’s performance opposite: with only 15 minutes allocated between ‘curtain ups’, a late start in the Courtyard drains our good will. Among the mutterings, I heard, ‘It’d better be good.’
Fortunately, It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is good. Very good. A huge amount of research and creative effort has produced an enthralling and disturbing hour of devised theatre, directed imaginatively by Billy Barrett, which treats the audience as court observers or jury.
It shines a light on troubling current-day concerns epitomised by such movements as #MeToo through a 17th century lens, with the aid of music and song from both eras, and makes starkly apparent the universally humiliating nature of rape trials. It demonstrates dramatically the gender power-imbalance at the heart of court proceedings and sexual abuse itself, and exposes the individual anguish and bravery suffered by plaintiffs when, all too often, today’s media reports remain at the level of, ‘She said, he said. Who do we believe?’
Luke W. Robson’s simple but clever set of ladders, steps and paint pots, doubles as artist’s studio and courtroom. Against this, three performers each take on one major character and several others. Their basic costume, black suits and white shirts with outsize cuffs and collars, highlights the dominance of men in court. That the actors are all women is no accident.
The grim details of the trial and events leading up to it are interspersed with scenes which shed light on Gentileschi’s art. Her paintings of two bible stories, first made soon after the rape, are juxtaposed with a male artist’s interpretation of each. In Gentileschi’s ‘Susannah and the Elders’, the woman is disturbed by two lecherous Elders ogling her as she bathes. In the male version, Susannah is a promiscuous temptress with the men at her mercy: this is a comic scene which uses a dollop of artistic licence – I can’t find any such extreme versions of the painting – but it makes an important political point entertainingly and is brilliantly performed.
“Lightning switches between emotions”
Gentileschi’s ‘Judith and Holofernes’ is a gory affair, showing the effort, guts and determination it takes to behead Holofernes. The actors’ dramatisation of this scene, complete with severed head, was unnecessary – the description alone was enough – but the point is made that Gentileschi transformed her responses to Agostino into powerful works of art.
Evidence shows that Gentileschi was a strong woman who repeated her allegations against Tassi under torture. Ellice Stevens is utterly sincere in the role. Alongside Gentileschi’s resilience, she shows us the pain it costs to expose truth. Her ‘naked’ distress in court is alarming.
Sophie Steer is compelling as Tassi. She plays him as an upright, silver-tongued and outwardly gentle villain who utterly denies the alleged rape, casually dismisses evidence of past crimes and calmly appeals to us as court observers. But, under pressure in court, Tassi betrays himself, screaming abuse at his accusers; in other scenes, his manipulative brutality is sickening. Steer manages the lightning switches between emotions with consummate ease, taking us deeper into the mindset of a malevolent control freak.
Together, Stevens and Steer produce an electrically charged dynamic between accuser and accused. Glances between them speak volumes; the lightest touch on a shoulder or lips is significant. Kathryn Bond supports them well as Tuzia, Gentileschi’s guardian, who changes her witness statement during the trial.
An overwhelmingly powerful production, well-paced and tightly directed, lost some of its impact by ending with the performers singing and dancing triumphantly to Patti Smith’s ‘Gloria’. This attempt at an upbeat finale seemed out of place, more an indulgence than a crowning glory. I wanted to leave the theatre with Gentileschi’s last words, ‘It’s true, it’s true, it’s true…’ and the statement that followed it, ringing in my ears: Tassi was found guilty and banished from Rome – for nine days – while Gentileschi lived her life with the emotional effects of the rape.
But, overall, It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is superbly made. I, for one, wish there had been a programme for this production; it took a long online trawl just to find a list of the actors and creative team. Certainly, Breach Theatre is a young company to watch out for and one which takes it politics beyond the stage: after the enthusiastic applause had died down at the end of the performance, one of the actors announced that they’ve been working with Leeds Rape Crisis while they’ve been in Yorkshire.
The opening season of the new Leeds Playhouse continues to be richly diverse and exciting.
images: The Other Richard