If only beheading an enemy was the way to solve problems in the modern world. In this production from Breach Theatre, Artemisia Gentileschi faces institutionalised sexism in a courtroom drama that drips with deserved righteousness. Rivalling some of the most excellent entries in the genre, It’s True differs wildly, without a seasoned and energetic lawyer on hand to argue for the underdog. In fact, no one is arguing for Artemisia here, a severely wronged woman left to fight her own battle, alone. But despite all of the insults, supposed evidence and rebuttal slung her way, it’s impossible to come away believing anything other than the truth of Artemisia’s story.
The most poignant takeaway from this production was the one you knew going in: It’s True.
In 1600s Rome, aspiring artist Artemisia brings a suit against her one time tutor and personal painter to the pope, Agostino Tassi. A clever part devised, part verbatim script sows seeds of prejudice from the off, expertly dropping the details of the crime as slowly as it pleases. The three actors play multiple roles, switching between distinct positions on the stage to create a brilliant triptych of witness, judge and observer. Harriet Webb is comically grotesque and smug as Agostino, but Ellice Stevens’ incredibly emotive performance grounds the situation in its sad reality. As Artemisia reveals the facts of the case – of her rape and subsequent theft of one of her paintings – there is a stunned sense of complicity echoing through the room, empathy built to a peak.
Despite the obvious gravity of the scenario, the script still retains a sense of humour, dotting moments of hilarity in the characterisation throughout. This carries through the direction too; Billy Barrett breaks up the testimony with fantastic sojourns into playful exposition. Particularly effective is a scene examining the story of Susanna and the Elders, which Artemisia has painted. A modernised discussion on victim blaming and horrific male supremacy, Barrett keeps the tone light and entertaining whilst managing to highlight these horrible systemic issues. Transitional punk rock matches the energy and passion of the actors, though there are certain examples of misuse. Occasionally the tune will continue a little long, the characters poised waiting to begin the next scene, and in one instance music invades an emotional speech that really doesn’t require any assistance. Barrett could do well to trust his performers a little more, particularly Stevens’ ability to execute hugely moving sentiments.
The truth of this production’s relevance in the modern era is left to hang on a rather bittersweet note. It’s True is never afraid to preach the point it is making, sacrificing any subtlety as a result. The weakness in Breach Theatre’s show is to push an agenda a little too forcefully, rather than letting an incredible script and amazing performances do the work. With the opportunity to end the show at it’s powerful height, the audience fully drawn in to Artemisia’s struggle, Barrett elects instead to add an extra five minutes demonstrating the ability of women to fight back. Empowering certainly, but offering this solution in a way damages any points made about those issues that need addressing – which (sadly) cannot be addressed simply by beheading men that stand in the way. The most poignant takeaway from this production was the one you knew going in: It’s True.