“It’s true”, she says. “It’s true. It’s true. It’s true. It’s true. It’s true.” It’s said to every single person in the audience. She looks into each of their, our, eyes. “It’s true.”
And it is, it was. Based on the real-life trial of Agostino Tassi for the rape of famed painter Artemisia Gentileschi (15 years old at the time of the incident in question), Breach Theatre’s new piece, delivered by a cast of three, is an uncompromising and creative examination of the language used and the attitudes towards sexual assault, throughout the ages.
But Gentileschi’s experiences don’t just come through her courtroom battle; in Breach’s hour-long production they also scream out from her artistic work – twice the cast transform the stage into replicas of her canvasses for Susanna and the Elders and Judith Slaying Holofernes. Ellice Stevens, as Susanna / Gentileschi, is simultaneously fawned over and spied upon by creeping voyeurs. Later she is depicted hacking away at a head. Art history, normally so easily considered musty and passé, springs vividly into the present day.
But what’s innately harrowing is that it’s never enough. Gentileschi has to try, push, struggle, just to get any sense of vindication. She ends up screaming, railing. “It’s true”. Her fingers are put through corkscrews to make sure she’s not lying. A man’s honour is worth more than a woman’s suffering. Even if he’s found guilty, what sort of punishment would an established and notable man from the 17th century have to pay with? There’s no victory for her – only grim determination. A drive to push on.
Themes of shame, of guilt and constant masculine domination ripple through the production, aided by some stellar work from Kathryn Bond as a slimy, malevolent Tassi. It’s succinct, with few flourishes. The production never overshadows the underlying themes and the source material.
The piece is as dazzling as it is daring – a given for Breach who, following their successes with the likes of Tank and The Beanfield, are on assured form here. As a show it never overstates itself, never feels explicitly didactic. The company know that the source material, laid bare, is compelling. And beneath the history and the drama, it howls.