“Everything that follows is true”: how verbatim theatre questions the meaning of truth

America Is Hard To See and It's True, It's True, It's True, are based on real-life events. But does that make them true?

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In Miracle Village, a community for convicted sex offenders in rural Florida, five men sit in a therapy class, and are made to introduce themselves. “Say what your offence is, and then say what you actually did,” instructs the class leader, suggesting that those two acts are not necessarily the same.

In a courtroom in Rome in 1612, Agostino Tassi answers in defence of allegations that he has raped the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, then 18. “How many times have you been imprisoned?” he is asked. “Twice. Ok... three times. Three times,” he says, repeating it as though repetition makes a statement more true. 

Both of these are scenes from plays on show this month at the Edinburgh Fringe, named America Is Hard To See and It’s True, It’s True, It’s True respectively. Both are verbatim plays – their scripts are formed of language taken from real-life events, used word for word. As such, they both deal with thorny questions of truth-telling.

“Everything that follows is true,” calls a voiceover at the beginning of the latter, which takes courtroom transcripts of the trial as the basis for its script. The original questions would have been asked in Latin, with answers given in Italian, we are told. What we hear is, of course, English, and as the three actors (Kathryn Bond, Sophie Steer and Harriet Webb) flit between multiple roles, they move between accents – Cockney, Received Pronunciation, Midlands – too. The ornamentations suggest that onstage, particularly when transfiguring between time and place, the truth is malleable. 

The creators of America Is Hard To See got much closer to its subject matter, carrying out interviews themselves. Members of the Life Jacket Theatre Company spent a year living with and interviewing members of Miracle Village, gathering over 400 hours of interviews and 500 pages of field notes during their time there. These documents, and the tape recorders that the community members are so aware of speaking around, are hard evidence. On the other hand, the final pages of the transcript for Gentileschi’s rape case are missing.

Both plays sit alongside a mass of verbatim theatre on at this year's Fringe, including Plaster Cast's Sound Cistem, Riot Road's Prefer Not To Say and Queen Mary Theatre Company's If I Die on Mars. As a genre, verbatim theatre is rooted to reality. It is a way to make sense of the confusion of the real world, by piecing phrases together in the hope of forming a cohesive narrative.

In particular, America Is Hard To See and It’s True, It’s True, It’s True deal with a type of truth that the public are typically uncomfortable talking about: rape, sexual assault, the criminality of men previously deemed socially acceptable. When Gentileschi’s account of her rape contradicts that of the accused (he lies and lies in order to hold on to his innocence), the judge introduces thumbscrews as a form of torture to verify her testimony. “Why am I being tortured?” she asks – for she is not the one on trial. “We can’t risk his fingers,” answers the judge, “he’s a painter.” “I’m a painter!” she calls, furiously. He paints for the Pope, as he continually attests, and so is superior to Gentileschi, having been her tutor for reasons of “perspective”. In this account, Tassi will always be the truer artist, his work carrying more worth.

What can and cannot be used as evidence in a court of law is queried too. Gentileschi points to her 1610 painting Susanna and the Elders, which depicts a scene from the Book of Daniel. Her having painted the scene, in which two men lurk around an uncomfortable Susanna as she takes a bath, is a suggestion of her truth-telling, of her having been raped by Tassi. “I painted it because I know what it is to be a woman who is looked at, rather than a man who gets off on it,” she says, inviting the courtroom to look closely at her painterly technique. “Look at the angle of her body – she is not inviting them at all.”

Onstage, the actors prepare to re-enact the Biblical scene depicted in the painting. We watch as they put on beards and new clothes, their costume change forming part of the action. Drawing attention to the formalities of theatrical production – the screens and disguises required by on-stage performance – here becomes a kind of statement of honesty. There is no pretence that this scene is “real”, though reality is not always truth. 

In much the same way, it is true that the words featured in America Is Hard To See were said by the residents of Miracle Village. But what they claim – that they were lured into their assault, that they didn’t know the girl was just 14, that it only happened once – is not necessarily the truth. These people, this much is made clear to us, are unreliable narrators. They have a propensity for lies. Does that make the play itself untrue?

What do we seek when we enter a theatre? A powerful story hits harder when we are told it is based on fact, that’s for sure. But clean edges and easy finishes can make for too neat a tale, and neatness often feels at odds with reality. These stories are both factually true – as we are told again and again – but it is in their fuzziness, their ambiguity, that they are made truer. 

“The audience should walk out saying ‘I don’t know how I feel’. Not knowing is empowering,” explains a member of America Is Hard To See’s company, at the beginning of the performance. Sometimes a murkier truth is a more believable one.

America Is Hard To See is presented by the Life Jacket Theatre Company and on show at Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh until 25 August.

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, presented by Breach Theatre, continues at Underbelly Bristo Square, Edinburgh as part of the British Council Showcase until 25 August. It then tours the UK during October and November.

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.