Breach Theatre: ‘A really exciting company that will only get better’
The theatre company that broke out at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015 is back at the festival with its fifth work, about a 17th century rape trial. The three creatives tell Natasha Tripney about their formally inventive work, telling ‘juicy stories’ and the parallels their latest show have with the #MeToo movement
In 1611, when she was 17, Artemisia Gentileschi – now regarded as one of the most progressive artists of the baroque era – was raped by her tutor, Agostino Tassi. The seven-month trial that followed – in which it was necessary to prove Gentileschi was a virgin at the time, otherwise it would not be deemed rape – is the subject of It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, the new show by Breach Theatre. It is proving to be one of the most talked about shows of the Edinburgh Fringe so far.
Breach was co-founded by Warwick University graduates Billy Barrett, Ellice Stevens and Dorothy Allen-Pickard. United by their interest in what Stevens calls “juicy stories”, Breach has rapidly made a name for itself for formally inventive work that uses documentary techniques in the service of its storytelling. Earlier this year, Lyn Gardner called it “one of the smartest young companies around”.
Barrett first read about Gentileschi in the Guardian and he shared the article with other members of the company. In the piece, critic Jonathan Jones said he thought Gentileschi “deserves to be one of the most famous artists in the world”. He described her art, her trial, her torture and her demand that people listen to her and believe her.
“Ellice had been wanting to make an all-female ensemble show for a while so it aligned quite well,” Barrett says. The company felt the story “contextualised the current moment in the centuries that preceded it”, but they were also drawn to “the fact these transcripts hadn’t been performed on stage before and the potential to make something a bit more theatrical, visual and narrative-driven than our most recent project”. This will be the first time the company has worked with a set designer, Luke W Robson.
Barrett explains how, during the research process, the company visited Italy to see the 70-page transcript of the trial. They then had to apply for the performance rights for the translation, which they “refined into a route map”. Even after that process, says Stevens, it was “still ridiculously long; a four-hour durational performance of a court case”.
It was the 17th century, but it’s not that different from how rape cases are handled now
One of the issues was the lack of Gentileschi’s own voice. “Because it was the 17th century, and because it’s not that different from how rape cases are handled now, we don’t hear much from her,” Stevens says. “We hear a lot from the men around her.”
They also watched Artemisia Agnes Merlet’s 1997 film about the case, but they hated the way it portrayed Gentileschi as in love with Tassi. “It made my skin crawl,” says Stevens. “It made us really angry.”
Dealing, as it does, with abuses of power, consent and the inadequacies of the legal system when it comes to cases of rape, it is an extraordinarily timely piece. Yet it’s one that’s been in development for some time. “It’s not a show about the #MeToo movement,” says Barrett, “and yet the parallels are so evident.”
He continues: “We were always conscious that all we could do was tell one story, even though we’re making this in the context of what is, hopefully, not just a cultural moment, but a transformative moment.” Working with an all-female cast – Stevens performs alongside Kathryn Bond and Sophie Steer – also, inevitably, informed their approach to the material.
Breach’s work explores the interplay between fiction and history, alert to narrative unreliability and the inherent slipperiness of truth. The company’s debut in 2015, The Beanfield, saw it attempt to re-enact the Battle of the Beanfield, a clash between a group of travellers en route to the solstice at Stonehenge and the Warwickshire police in 1985.
The exercise of recreation became part of the fabric of a piece that inventively merged film and live performance. Despite its 10am slot in one of Edinburgh’s less than atmospheric venues, a hotel conference room, it was a surprise hit. The Stage called it “an engaged, potent piece of theatremaking by a young company with a strong creative identity”.
It won a Total Theatre Award for emerging artist or company that year. It was later staged in Battersea Arts Centre, which went on to commission subsequent work. BAC artistic associate Shelley Hastings says seeing the first show “was like finding a gem in the rough. For a first show it was pretty remarkable”.
She continues: “Their work is really layered. It’s political but very funny. For a young company, they have such rigour. They use a lot of different forms, which is very satisfying for an audience.”
Its next show was Tank, about scientists who attempted to communicate with dolphins using LSD in the 1960s, which once again used real transcripts. This was followed by The Ploughing of the Half-Acre as part of Fair Field, a series of performances made in response to medieval epic Piers Plowman and curated by Penned in the Margins.
What followed – The Drill – was a bit of a departure, a critique on disaster rehearsal training, and the critical response was mixed. Writing in the Guardian, Gardner said it felt “like a missed opportunity”. Barrett laughs: “Nothing is as creatively freeing as a poorly received show.”
The new show, he says, is “different aesthetically, dramatically, and we’ve gone into it with a completely different attitude”. Barrett doesn’t want the company to be defined by its interest in documentary, it is just one facet of its work. It’s limiting to put yourself and your work in a box too early, he says, before acknowledging that, having made one show that experimented with different theatremaking techniques, it is funny that they’ve now plunged even further back into the past with this show.
The BAC’s Hastings says: “They have definitely got a voice, a tone. They find something that fascinates them, then research and unpack it, filtering it into a really tight show. That’s what gives it a layered feel.”
She adds: “They are a really exciting young company and they are just going to get better.”
Breach will be presenting It’s True for a five-week run in October at the New Diorama, as part of the venue’s new model, in which it programmes a smaller number of companies but offers greater support.
It is being supported by a number of companies, including the BAC, but the New Diorama has been particularly helpful on an organisational level. It is really good at recognising individual skills and interests, says Stephens. “It’s really hard sometimes when you’re part of a company. You feel that’s all you are.”
Stephens was a recipient of the Diorama Female Leadership Fund, which enabled her to go on a Clore Leadership Programme. “They’ve helped strengthen our belief in ourselves as individuals as well as helping our company go further,” she says. “And they’ve given us some money,” Barrett adds, “which is nice.”
First they bring It’s True to Edinburgh. “We love going,” says Barrett, who is notching up his tenth fringe, having “been in shit shows and good shows”, as well as reviewing for the Scotsman.
Breach was one of three winners of the Untapped Edinburgh competition, which is backed by the New Diorama and Underbelly, alongside Nouveau Riche and This Egg. David Byrne, artistic director of New Diorama, said the winners “blew us away with their passion, ideas and performances”.
The fringe allows the company’s work to reach a different audience to touring. “It’s an amazing, enriching experience, but it’s unsustainable. Had we not been given the Untapped award we wouldn’t be going.” The Edinburgh Fringe, he says, “is not built for companies to take work in a secure way”.
Stevens says: “I’m nervous about mental health,” a common concern among young artists when discussing the fringe. “I’m thinking about the ways we can be kind to each other in an environment that’s in equal parts thrilling and draining.” Barrett adds: “The fringe is a bit like having Christmas Day every day for a month. Imagine how you’d feel after that.”
Company members: Ellice Stevens, Billy Barrett, Dorothy Allen-Pickard and producer Ellie Claughton
Funding: Arts Council England, commissions and box office income
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True is at Underbelly, Edinburgh, from August 2-26 at 2.50pm