noun. the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise
In a sense all theatre reviewing is a form ekphrasis, with all the challenges and slipperiness of trying to pin down the visual into words (like pinioning a butterfly’s wings). Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, which dramatises the trial of Agostino Tassi for the rape of baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, is a particularly visually rich show. Two of Artemisia’s paintings are presented as evidence, enacted through tableaux.
Exhibit A: Susanna and the Elders. 1610. Oil on canvas. Schloss Wessenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany.
Against a blue backdrop scattered with clouds, Susanna undresses to take her bath. The Elders, one in a brown cloak, one in a red cloak, creep through the undergrowth to watch her. Artemisia glosses her painting for the court, from within the painting as Susanna. Although ‘Susanna and the Elders’ is a familiar subject of art, Artemisia tells us in a virtuosic explication of the male gaze, male painters’ Susannas seem to invite the assault. Her Susanna angles her body away, arms raised. Artemisia offers the painting as evidence that the attentions of Agostino Tassi and his men were unreciprocated.
Exhibit B: Judith Slaying Holofernes. c. 1614-20. Oil on canvas. National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples.
Artemisia describes the scene before we see it. The strength required to behead a man, the struggle, the gore. Judith with the sword, her maid holding Holofernes down. Her biographer Mary Garrard proposed that the painting functions as ‘a cathartic expression of the artist’s private, and perhaps repressed, rage’. Holofernes has the face of Agostino and Artemisia painted herself as Judith. Later in the show, a rock star Judith (Sophie Steer) blazes in brandishing a sword, a furious feminist fantasy of revenge. Let’s go and behead some men. Artemisia takes up the sword and steps into her own painting. Judith in a blue dress, her maid in a red dress, Holofernes in a white smock.
As well as recreating Artemisia’s works, Breach create new images:
Exhibit C: Three female performers in black suits with oversized white pointy collars and cuffs. A courtroom that is also an artist’s studio, stepladders, tins of paint, dust sheets.
Exhibit D: Artemisia putting her clothes back on as she describes her rape.
Exhibit E: Artemisia’s hands, dripping with gold paint. Curled into claws of pain. Broken, painter’s fingers. Dripping with gold blood. They made her repeat her confession with her hands in thumb screws. Agostino interrogated Artemisia under torture. Who was on trial here?
The costumes recall Laura Bradshaw and Nic Green’s Cock and Bull and RashDash’s Three Sisters, spinning a web of visual, feminist references.
‘Give me the ocular proof’. Othello, III. 3.
Are visual images more trustworthy than words? In documentary theatre, which Breach engages with by using original court transcripts, words are put on trial. Yet the paradox of documentary theatre is that it makes a heightened truth claim to other modes of theatre by presenting evidence, but shapes and edits its evidence as much as any other type of theatre. It puts pressure on what’s true.
His word against hers. One of them must be lying. His word and tens of false witnesses’ words against hers.
It’s true. It’s true. It’s true. It’s true. It’s true. It’s true. It’s true. It’s true. It’s true. It’s true. Repeated until it no longer sounds like a phrase, the meaning of the words within starting to disintegrate. There is something here about performance and repetition. Does repeating your testimony make it less true?
Artemisia’s paintings are presented as evidence. The show presents her paintings as acts of female self-expression, painting her truth when her words were silenced or ignored. Paintings make different truth claims to words. Saying, ‘It’s true’, conjures the opposite, ‘It’s not true’. There is not one perspective, one interpretation. A painting is not a confession, a testimony, or an autobiography. At the end of the show, Breach tell us that, despite its emphasis in biographical accounts, Artemisia Gentileschi did not allow her rape to define her life. She should be remembered for her art, not her rape. It’s True, It’s True, It’s True beautifully fractures the male gaze into a kaleidoscope of strong colour, fury, and female self-expression.
Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is on at Underbelly until 26th August. More info here.