- It's True, It's True, It's True: Artemisia on Trialby Breach Theatre
The last time I attended a live, in-the-flesh theatre production was March 4, 2020, a mere two weeks from Illinois's Disaster Proclamation and three from its Stay at Home Order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. As I entered the auditorium, I found that the ordinary sights and sounds of a winter matinée audience—the heads clustered over programs, the low din of sniffles, coughs, and crinkling lozenge wrappers—did not settle into the background of my playgoing experience but hammered away at my amygdala, each registering as a cause for alarm.
What possessed me, I now wonder, to keep going? Without letting American leadership off the hook for the public's poor safeguarding of its health, I find that my heedlessness sheds some light on what might be called the bioticside of theatrical liveness. The revelation is twofold: COVID-19 confronts spectators with the virality of a play's spoken matter, as well as the peculiar unaddressability of that condition. To be sure, the failure to track the rising unwholesomeness of a changing environment is not specific to the stage. But the cognitive incapacity to apprehend what our senses cannot casually detect is exacerbated by the theatre's evergreen assurance that nothing happens there. The pledge of harmlessness built into the notion that plays are designed to vanish, as Prospero says, "into thin air" has resulted in the view of performance as a state of being that is brought to a halt by conditions that matter, even as "thin air" has lost its former sense of an empty and inert domain.
If "attending" streamed plays during the ongoing pandemic means asking what can be seen and what should be said about the theatre in its absence—while it is a signal without a medium—then my answer is that COVID-19 has made it impossible to overlook the fact that things happen to us as we watch a play, and not just in the cerebral sense that thoughts are sparked, but also in the molecular sense that we are moved and acted upon; as spectators, we make ourselves susceptible to its under-the-skin machinations. Of the many productions I watched during the cornucopia of streamed theatre last spring, none was so alive to this condition as Breach Theatre's It's True, It's True, It's True: Artemisia on Trial. A digital vestige of a palpable hit, it served up a needed reminder that if sometimes to our peril then certainly also to our gain, the theatre's shaping fantasies remake us as we watch them. [End Page 509]
As those who are familiar with the short roster of seventeenth-century female artists may already suspect, the Artemisia in question is Artemisia Gentiles-chi, the first woman admitted to Florence's Academy of Fine Arts, and a painter whose remarkable professional achievements have become ineradicably entangled with the history of her rape. It's True, It's True, It's Trueis devised to animate and investigate that entanglement. Originally commissioned by the New Diorama Theatre, the play premiered at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe, where it returned the following summer as a British Council Showcase. It toured the UK throughout 2019 and was set to be performed at the Pit, the Barbican's studio space, last March when COVID-19 brought the season to a standstill. In lieu of the live production, the Barbican streamed a filmed version that had been commissioned and broadcast on BBC Four as part of the channel's special programming on the nude in art (anchored by Mary Beard's two-part series, "Shock of the Nude"). By popular demand, the online run was extended from the original production period through late May, which is when I got the message to tune in...