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Armchair Reviewers Club - Round up of Week 4 (It's True, It's True, It's True)

Welcome back Armchair Reviewers and thanks for all of your responses for this week.

Your reviews were fantastic as ever but this week’s show seemed to rouse real response and passion. Perhaps this shouldn’t be of great surprise given the subject matter for the show: It’s True, It’s True. It’s True is a compelling dramatisation of a 1612 rape trial brought by the gifted painter Artemisia Gentileschi, told verbatim from incomplete court records, by an ensemble of three female performers.

Before we get into it, I have a confession to make… I have seen this show before (twice in fact!). I remember watching it for the first time at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August of last year and being unbelievably affected by it; sobbing through Artemisia’s calls of ‘It’s true, it’s true, it’s true’ and standing side by side with other audience members at the end of the show rapturously applauding, so impassioned by what we had just seen. As we left the auditorium, some audience members stayed behind in silent contemplation and tears. Clearly the show’s topic had a found a way to touch many audience members (mainly women) in a very personal way.

Some context for you articulated beautifully by our reviewers:

‘When Agostino Tassi, the pope’s favourite artist, was accused of raping 15-year-old Gentileschi, the ensuing seven-month case was widely publicised. It’s True, It’s True, It’s True interweaves jaw-dropping court transcripts with history, myth, contemporary insight and moments of satire to ask: how much has really changed?’
Cathy via email

‘Despite more and more women in the UK reporting rapes to the police, the level of prosecutions is at a 10-year low. It’s True, It’s True, It’s True takes us to the heart of the courtroom and lays bare this statistic.’
Alison via email

‘It can be interpreted that lack of successful outcomes leads to the view that the whole exercise is pointless, so why relive a trauma and go through the pain and humiliation all over again in a public court room.’
Christine via email

‘There is no doubt that there are parallels to be drawn between the experience of Artemisia and women today, not least of all in terms of the abusive nature of rape trials (hinted at in one scene where Artemisia gradually re-clothes her body whilst intrusive questions rain down upon her, desperately trying to preserve some privacy).’
Cathy via email

This is the reason why the play is so powerful for me. In the post Me Too world, we now know the prevalence of sexual abuse and its level of acceptance. In watching It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, it’s easy to understand how and why; with women having been inherently disbelieved for hundreds of years. It’s shocking and not shocking at all.

Our reviewers’ words were so excellently chosen, and thoughts so well constructed and considered, that I am going to leave you with my favourite sections of our reviews from the week:

‘I loved the way lighting and design mirrored and exposed the light and shade of this artist’s world and work. The editing from scene to scene took up a similar staccato punctuation, as did the incongruent - but entirely fitting - 20th century sound. Both Artemisia and her famous contemporary, Caravaggio, painted the Biblical severing of the head of Holofernes by Judith. All the tensions in this story of Gentileschi and her rapist, Agostino Tassi, were pushed and pushed towards this moment of revenge - and the release of her anger, dejection and artistic power. The monologues from Artemisia were all the more powerful, set against the other features so skilfully created by Breach Theatre.

A superb ensemble of three female actors rotated in roles as the judge, the innocent and the wayward, winsome Tassi, the accused rapist. All his excuses, blame and counter-condemnation of her. And the way the court in Rome in 1612 turned, so cruelly, to put Artemisia on trial - questioning her truth, rather than his. It’s True, it’s True, it’s True.’
Alison via email

‘There was no justice for her – her outrage could not be vented except in the subject matter of her painting – which is not the same as validation of her, a woman.

I cannot help but think the repeating of motifs in her paintings relieved her feelings, her pain, for a while, a little like repeatedly having to lance a carbuncle which will not drain properly. This knife wielding for carbuncles or males who have violated you does not heal the wound, or prevent future festering.

Yes, she goes on to achieve what was unthinkable for a woman of those times, acceptance and status by the Medici’s, King Charles (Stuart) and the Academy of Arts in Florence. Yes, she can be seen to be successful, to have ‘risen above it all’.

But, it appears to me she is and remains still deeply wounded, the pain, the anger, the sadness keep welling up and she must have had a sense of powerlessness to change this, to put everything right. Hence the repetition of the subject material in her work, her only form of release, albeit temporary.

In the light of this – what appeared to me to be validatory singing of Patti Smith’s version of Gloria and the accompanying dance seems to miss the point; or have I? What has Artemisia won, if she is still so deeply hurt inside? I do want to see her paintings and hope the Exhibition at the National Gallery will be rescheduled.’
Christine via email

‘Incomplete court records from a 1612 rape trial don’t necessarily sound like the most promising starting point for an engaging piece of contemporary theatre. Discover that the victim was an under-recognised Baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi (first female admitted to the Academy of Arts in Florence), over looked due to her gender and that her assailant was her painting tutor, Agostino Tassi, and you can begin to feel your interest grow. However, the task of staging such a tale in a way which takes your audience along with you and makes Artemisia’s story one which speaks to the women of today, is still a tall order. When I read the premise of the show, I prepared myself for a quiet, subtle tale which would require patience and attention to connect with.

What bounded out onto the stage, accompanied by loud guitar music, were three serious, unapologetic and righteous women, dressed androgynously in white shirts, black suits and oversized dog collars and cuffs, reminiscent of both pulpit and court room. The all women cast then proceeded to play all the parts as the trial of Agostino Tassi commenced, shifting positions and changing the simple stage props to indicate who was the interrogator and who the interrogated.

I was riveted, primed by years of police procedural dramas on ITV and BBC and could feel my blood begin to boil at the insouciance of Tassi as he smarmed his way through his answers, appealing to the audience to ‘put to bed’ the hysterical fantasies of a young woman. As I was wondering whether this musical chair courtroom conceit could sustain our interest throughout the play, the cast shifted a gear and became one of Gentileschi’s most famous paintings: Susanna and The Elders, our lead stripping to her knickers whilst the other players donned beards and cloaks and told the story of Susanna walking daily in the garden of Joaquim and being watched daily by two male elders whose desire was inflamed and who averted their eyes… until one hot day, Susanna, unaware she is being watched, strips to bathe. What follows is a wonderful compare and contrast of Gentileschi’s depiction of the scene, in which Susanna is horrified when she discovers the two elders leering at her in her nakedness, with the work of male painters such as Alessandro Allori in which Susanna becomes a coquette.

Later set pieces by the cast are also imaginative and breathe life into their material. For example, when the court hears witness statements upon the moral character of Artemisia, each actress becomes another dubious witness testifying to Artemisia’s promiscuity whilst the remaining two cast members stand at each side of the stage miming out each half of a graphic sex scene: one on all four, the other thrusting; switch to straddling and writhing, lying and thrusting. The affect is both comic and empowering, both sending up the lurid fantasies of the men testifying and questioning whose fantasies these are? Perhaps asking where is female desire in all this and claiming it back?

However, by the time we get to the later scenes of the play, the characters began to feel two-dimensional, so much so that by the time we get to a pivotal courtroom scene in which we see that the entire case rests on whether you believe Artemisia or Agostino (as is the case in so many rape trials and why they fail to prosecute once a woman’s character has been so maligned for normal sexual behaviours). Artemisia is staring her rapist in the eye crying: It’s true! It’s true! It’s true! over and over again and I found myself just getting irritated with her as you might a petulant child. The performance (so wonderful at points) felt thin. I feel like a terrible feminist saying this but I thought: if this was Glenda Jackson I might believe you – which in itself perhaps highlights another issue of rape trials by jury and perhaps of my own swallowing of the patriarchy… but it felt more like the play had lost its way.’
Cathy via email

‘Wow! Brilliant, really powerful and dark. Exceptional acting esp. from Artemisia and Tassi.’
Lydia via Facebook

Thank you again for all of your fabulous reviews; hearing your passion and excitement is such a joy at this time. It is so wonderful to share in something we love when we can’t get together to share as we would normally.

Our play for this week is Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch presented by the National Theatre, available from 30th April

I can’t wait to hear what you think of this one!

Take care, Reviewers!

Charlotte Hall
Head of Programming and Engagement