A Drunken Sailor, Art, Artemisia Gentileschi, Edinburgh Fringe, Feminism, History, Joan Greening, Julia Munrow, Julia Rufey, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Rape, The Rape of Artemisia Gentileschi, The Spaces on the Mile, Theatre Review
With “Beyond Caravaggio” as this year’s summer exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery, it is fortuitous that the Space on the Mile is also hosting two pieces of Fringe theatre about the Italian Baroque. The man himself struts his stuff in “Caravaggio: Between the Darkness” and then we have one of the most notorious members of the Caravaggisti recounting her story in Joan Greening’s “The Rape of Artemisia Gentileschi.” You can make a day of it, seeing the paintings in the morning, Caravaggio on stage in the afternoon, and Gentileschi in the evening.
Unfortunately, the particular painting at the heart of Greening’s play is not included in “Beyond Caravaggio.” “Judith Slaying Holofernes” (1614-20) initially resembles a less forceful variation upon Caravaggio’s extraordinary masterpiece “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1598). Nonetheless, Gentileschi moves the game-playing with portraiture that sometimes occurs in Caravaggio’s painting to a radical, even unprecedented new level.
Gentileschi was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi in 1611 and, once it became clear that he was not going to marry her, her father sued him. This was a property dispute – rape was then defined as the theft of virginity, and the Gentileschis wanted compensation. Artemisia was tortured during Tassi’s trial, in order to, as they saw it, test her sincerity. Tassi was found guilty and jailed for eight months, slightly longer than the length of the trial.
Gentileschi’s painting thereafter went into a rhapsody of decapitation. The heads being cut off or carried in baskets in these pictures – heads that nominally belong(ed) to Holofernes, a decapitated favourite for Renaissance and Baroque painters – appears to wear the face of Tassi. In “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” two women, a mistress and a servant, fight to hold Holofernes/Tassi down. Judith is an evident portrait of Gentileschi. The sword that slices through the neck is so vertical that it becomes a de facto crucifix; Gentileschi’s vengeance is an expelling of demons.
Whereas the painting shows two women toiling together, the two on stage in Greening’s play are adversaries. Tuzia (Julia Rufey) is an older friend of Artemisia’s (Julia Munrow) who was found during the trial to have aided Tassi’s assault. In this play, she visits Artemisia years later with a mind to challenge her original testimony. Considering the neediness of academic feminism’s relationship with Gentileschi, this would be a brave play if it found her story to be a pack of lies. It emerges, however, that Tuzia might have also been a victim of Tassi’s heartlessness.
“The Rape of Artemisia Gentileschi” looks very splendid, with the two actresses dressed in Titian’s colours. The narrative is pacy, but it is always too explicatory for the psychology on stage to ever come alive, a problem that is common to this genre of play. For example, when Tuzia first appears, Gentileschi naturally wants her to leave, but of course she can’t leave because there is so much story to go through, resulting in a fake tension that holds everything up. Some of the play’s dialogue jars with its lavish Shakespearean façade (e.g. “I will die but my art will live…”). Munrow is an experienced actress, but the combination of physical fury and thorough storytelling that her performance requires means that she is given far too much to carry. It is the drama that is inevitably dropped.
The dramatic highlight of this play is achieved at the very beginning, with a powerful recital of Gentileschi’s own words from her trial testimony. Her account of the rape is stark and gory; you will register exactly the same shiver as when you stare deep into the well of her painting.