Artemesia Gentileschi, the daughter of an artist father and possessing more talent than him, works in his studio in 1612 Rome. When his colleague Agostino Tassi rapes her, father and daughter take the unheard of, shameful step of accusing him of the crime and forcing a seven month trial. A multitude of 17th century court documents from Rome have surprisingly filtered down to us over 400 years. In this Gentileschi case, Breach Theatre's in-house script writers have had the documents translated from Latin and Italian, then bridged gaps in the official testimony with their own text, though clinging closely to the record.
The current law in Britain for sexual offence cases lets defence lawyers make application to cross-examine victims on their sexual history. Fear of being confronted with evidence about sex with other men is to this day a serious deterrent to the reporting of rape. In Gentileschi's day, a woman could not bring an accusation of rape unless she was a virgin, so it was in Tassi’s interests to wreck her appearance of innocence. A nasty piece of work, he had previously been twice accused of rape and of hiring contract killers to murder his wife. He went on to enjoy a European reputation as a landscape and seascape painter, with one of his pupils being one Claude Lorrain, no less.
In It’s True..., while in essence it's a courtroom drama, director Billy Barrett avoids the drawback in film and theatre of the genre seeming formulaic and static. To emphasize the relevance of the material, we are treated to bursts of rap music separating the scenes as our all-female cast of three multi-task, at first kitted out in dark suits as court officials, then servants and, of course, as Artemisia herself and Tassi (Sophie Steer, bringing out vividly the anger and callousness of this man interested not at all in Artemisia's great ability but wholly in exercising power over her body).
Two intense scenes re-enact a pair of her most famous Old Testament pictures: Susanna and the Elders and Judith Slaying Holofernes. The cast don biblical costume and play out the tales, culminating in tableaux where they are frozen in the very poses adopted by the characters in the paintings. While the leering elders are effectively depicted as sinister Peeping Toms and worse, General Holofernes, scourge of the Israelites, is paralytically drunk, supine even as Judith and her maid saw off his head with a blunt broadsword.
Artemisia is given life with ever-gathering conviction by Ellice Stevens, playing half-nude for whole scenes and bringing out her the sexual innocence together with her professional poise. The inventive set by Luke Robson - a huge paint-splattered studio backcloth, a criss-cross of ladders and stylised easels - adds to the off-kilter feel, pitched somewhere between naturalism and metaphor. But what's certain is the anger driving on the play's reminder of both our shockingly low rape report-to-conviction ratio, and how even in 2019 rape victims often end up tarred with a measure of blame.