Review: It's True, It's True, It's True (Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh Fringe)

Breach Theatre’s new piece tells the story of revolutionary 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi

It's True, It's True, It's True
It's True, It's True, It's True
© The Other Richard

The story of Artemisia Gentileschi is one of the most inspiring in art history. A talented and significant painter in the 17th century, she worked at a time when women were not meant to be artists, yet she became the first woman to be admitted into the Florence Accademia, her magnificent depictions of powerful women hanging on the walls of princes and kings.

She was also, when she was 15, raped by another young artist called Agostino Tassi – and in 1612 took him to court to accuse him. The transcripts of that extraordinary seven-month trial in Rome inform the basis of this compelling play by Breach Theatre.

The words, echoing from the past, make you shudder. Despite her repeated protestations of her innocence and her detailed description of how Tassi had attacked her, repeated consistently even under torture, it was Gentileschi's reputation that was on trial, with the woman whom her father asked to guard and protect her when he was out of the house, joining the slanders against her.

Under the bully-boy tactics and the lies you hear the reason she is so traduced. "She's 15 years-old and thinks she can paint." Gentileschi really could – the National Gallery in London has just spent 3.6 million pounds buying one of her paintings to add to its collection – and her belief that she had something to say, her determination to fulfil her talent, is as profoundly inspiring as her defiance in the face of the slurs set against her.

What's brilliant about Breach Theatre's production, directed by Billy Barrett, is the way it uses a bare-bones aesthetic – steel decorators' stools, rich lighting – not only to tell the story with fierce passion, but also to recreate significant moments from Gentileschi's art. Her paintings of Judith Beheading Holofernes and of Susanna and the Elders gleam down the years, helping us to understand just how different her view of the world was from that of her male contemporaries.

The three performers, Ellice Stevens, Kathryn Bond and Sophie Steer, pass the narrative between them. Stevens plays Gentileschi with a calm fury, an absolute conviction of her rights and a shining bravery, while Steer brings to the arrogant, brawling Tassi – a man who is keen to let the court know how much work he does for the Pope – exactly the right blend of entitlement and fear, and Bond makes us squirm as the men and women who betrayed her. Terrific stuff.

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