Diorama Theatre, London – until 10 November 2018
Artemisia Gentileschi, who lived in Florence during the first half of the 17th century, was a pioneer: an accomplished painter who was the first woman to be admitted to the drawing academy in Florence. Her life, full of Medicis, Baroque artists, affairs, and European travel, is a fascinating slice of Renaissance life. However, she is remembered not only for her paintings – the National Gallery has just bought her self-portrait as Saint Catherine – but for the trial of the man who raped her when she was 15. The transcripts of the 1612 trial survive for the most part and form the basis of Breach Theatre’s show.
Three performers present the events of the trial, necessarily condensed, in verbatim form, something like the Tricycle Theatre’s tribunal plays of the 1990s and 2000s. With the language updated, the events described in court sound highly contemporary, and the treatment of Artemisia disturbingly familiar. Her rape, by the painter Agostino Tassi who was employed as her tutor, came after a lengthy period of harassment and intimidation by Tassi and his friend, who used their positions of power to take advantage of Artemisia, threaten her and use her for their own ends.
Breach Theatre stages the action on a minimal set consisting of studio equipment repurposed as docks and witness stands. Ellice Stevens, as Artemisia, keeps her anger under a remarkable level of control, determined to redress such a blatant wrong. Harriet Webb plays Tassi as a posh-boy bully full of self-regard, confident that his connections (he paints for The Pope, yeah) will get him out of any fix. Webb makes him thoroughly, convincingly, nasty.
Kathryn Bond plays Tuzia, Artemisia’s friend and protector who betrayed her, as weak but understandably, unable to stand up to the threats of rich men. Artemisia is, remarkably, tortured in court with thumb screws to test the truth of her testimony to save the painter’s hands of the accused, her own art being of no consequence to the authorities. Although Tassi was eventually convicted, his punishment was light and justice was only grudgingly done.
The story in itself is fascinating and highly relevant to current concerns, but director Billy Barrett and dramaturg Dorothy Allen-Pickard have created much more than a simple retelling. The most remarkable scenes are those in which Artemisia’s pictures come to life, conventional Biblical scenes restaged as angry tableaux. Her ‘Judith and Holofernes’, the former sawing off the latter’s head, has a different edge painted by a woman while ‘Susanna and the Elders’ is a case study in sexual harassment. These paintings become telling, dramatic interludes in the trial that show us what is happening to Artemisia behind what she reveals in court.
The production’s use of music is also bold and effective, cutting through the 17th century setting to place the action simultaneously in the moment. The show culminates in a cathartic rendition of Patti Smith’s ‘Gloria’, taking the place of the final, missing pages of the trial record. The key moment, however, is Artemisia’s forced declaration under torture, as she cries out ‘It’s true, it’s true, it’s true” again and again as she did in court, a moment of affirmation for her and for women facing the same ordeals today. A skilled, surprising and visceral piece of theatre, with an urgent story to tell.