A Life of Galileo
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
As the RSC's 2013 'Summer' season starts, the varied winter season comes to an end with Mark Ravenhill's translation of Bertolt Brecht's A Life of Galileo. I am becoming increasingly interested in the playwright, especially after seeing my favourite play last year, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. When the winter season was announced, I could not pass up the opportunity to see one of Brecht's well known plays.
When Galileo Galilei (Ian McDiarmid) replicates the telescope for the Venetian Republic, he uses it to discover that the Aristotelian belief that the earth stood at the centre of the universe, whilst the sun, planets and stars spun around it, was incorrect. He concludes that the earth is only a small part of the universe. It goes against the church's belief that the earth and its creatures are God's divine work. Galileo works endlessly to persuade bishops and politicians that he is correct, to no avail. Soon his theories begin to affect the church, who become divided, his followers, and those who close to him.
This production did very well in using Brechtian techniques. In the form of placards, the production had ticker tape screens hanging above the stage and the words would stream across them, whilst actors spoke some versed lines that showed different views on the events that occurred. A song that took up the beginning of the second act showed how science was affecting the lower classes. The cast used the Verfrumdungseffekt technique so that I observed rather than felt involved in the action. Although the issues and themes were shown more subtly than The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, I was fascinated the whole way through.
This was helped by a great cast. Ian McDiarmid was in a world of his own as an energetically, optimistic Galileo, but he gradually became despondent and bitter as he tried to make people believe in his theory. At times this egotistical character was flawed, as Ian portrayed a man obsessed with science to the exclusion of human relationships. A highlight showed him dismissing the passionate arguments for faith by Joel Gillman's Small Monk.Once again Jodie Mcnee gave a strong performance as Galileo's innocent and caring daughter Virginia Galilei. She became anxious for his safety and during a tense moment she prayed continuously that he would save himself, whilst his friends hoped that he would stick to his scientific theories.
Other outstanding performances included Patrick Romer, who came on at one point as an indignant old Cardinal flailing about and shouting his opposition to Galileo. Matthew Aubrey was a simple Andrea at first but he developed as a learned student of Galileo's during the play. Sadie Shimmin as Galileo's housekeeper Mrs Sarti was a down-to-earth character and a contrast to Galileo. Martin Turner meanwhile had a moment as the Cardinal Inquisitor when he tried to persuade the new Pope to denounce Galileo.
The set was full of striking, contrasting colours. Against a background of blue graph paper, red structures were brought on and off, which adds to the non-illusionary Verfrumdungseffekt technique. Galileo's explanations of his theories by using objects as demonstrations kept these moments interesting. The costumes worn by Galileo and his companions were modern in comparison to the medieval vestments worn by the church, which demonstrated how science was advancing further than the church.
What a great follow-up to The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Although I prefer that production, this was a fascinating Brechtian production with a strong cast. This should be seen at a Top Price.