It’s True, It’s True, It’s True at New Diorama Theatre asks us to bear witness to Artemisia Gentileschi's pain
After It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, I realiSed that the two girls I was standing with and I were a perfect triptych: one of them had never heard of Artemisia Gentileschi, one of them only knew her as a painter, and I, mostly ignorant about art, mostly know her as a famous rape survivor.
None of which is really fair. She’s a fascinating painter, subtly but distinctly different from the male painters tackling the same Biblical tableaux in her 17th century Italian artistic scene. She is an argument, it seems, for the notion of a distinctly feminine subjectivity; for the notion that the way the world shapes us as women means we necessarily must see—have always seen—that world differently.
She’s also an argument, at least in Breach Theatre’s play (stitched together from verbatim testimony from the trial in which she accused her father’s painting partner Agostino Tassi of raping her and then refusing to marry her) that the more things change the more they stay the bloody same. See Tassi swagger, with his blond hair and cool posh confidence that he can hold the room in the palm of his hand. And can’t he just. See the audience laughing along as he scoffs and prevaricates—oh, you want to hear about every time I’ve been to prison? See the tight-lipped matron shake her head: why can’t you give him a chance? Why can’t you be nice? See his laddish pals lie, see the lawyers shrug, see Artemisia hold in and hold in and hold in her rage until— she has to hold it in some more if she wants anyone to listen.
We don’t see any of Artemisia’s paintings directly, though the company of three women re-enacts (with cheeky framing scenes) the two for which she is best known, the two depictions of Biblical scenes most associated with her rape: a painting of Susannah being leered at by two elders, and a painting of Judith labouring to behead Holofernes, depicted as a startling and bloody struggle. Artemisia sardonically takes apart the efforts of her male contemporaries. His Susannah looks like she wants it. His Judith’s little stick arms could never behead a man. Her paintings—like her testimony—are true.
Though Tassi is on trial, the burden of proof (the more things change, eh?) comes to rest on Artemisia. I found it hard to unpick, in the last quarter of the play, whether Breach Theatre were commenting on the way we still force women to do the same thing, or just actually doing it themselves. Perform your pain for us. We believe you, we believe you, now tell us every detail. Humanise it. Tell us more. Artemisia must break and flay herself, and I don’t think that the play thinks that is a good thing—but there she is. Only Artemisia is naked. Only Artemisia is weeping, gasping, screaming, begging us to meet her eye and hear her truth. That’s how it is, that’s the way we still make it. The woman must strip herself bare while the men walk away sneering and untouched. That’s how the play does it, too, and frames the watching of it as a duty. We owe her that, right? She has to tell us her story—again and again—so that we can honour her by listening. That’s what we’re doing when we listen, again and again…right?
At a certain point, everyone stopped laughing at Tassi, though he was still sleek and blond and smiling. We heard Artemisia’s story, and we couldn’t laugh for him anymore. It’s painful and unfair, but maybe it’s the only way anything changes.