A LIFE OF GALILEO
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 19th February, 2013
Roxana Silbert’s production of this new translation by RSC resident playwright Mark Ravenhill gives us a Brecht play that adds weight to the characters’ humanity, wisely restricting the Brechtian aspects of the staging to the inter-scene transitions.
We begin with a backdrop like huge sheets of blue graph paper. A handheld microphone lies centre stage. Electronic noticeboards hang over the stage, scrolling the captions for each scene. The mic is snatched up by Galileo himself. As he begins to narrate, cast members run by, stripping him down to his boxer shorts. As he washes himself, he instructs his landlady’s young son in the basics of his argument: that the Earth is not a fixed point at the centre of the universe; it moves and turns, as all stars do… And so, the play begins with both man and his ideas laid bare before us.
As Galileo, evil emperor Palpatine off of Star Wars himself, Ian McDiarmid gives a towering performance. We see the mathematician’s enthusiasm and delight along with his egotism, his boastfulness, his drive, his passion and his arrogance on almost a Dawkins-like scale. This is a portrait of a man, painted with deft strokes and more naturalism than you might expect in a Brecht play. In fact, in this world of plastic chairs and nifty red stepladders, the cast breathes life into the characters, making them more than mouthpieces for either side of the central argument.
That argument is uncannily topical. It is astounding to me to know that in 2013 reason still faces such strong opposition from institutionalised superstition. You only have to think back a fortnight or so and recall the fatuous arguments of the wilfully ignorant trying to bolster their bigotry against equal marriage with highly selective quotes from scripture. You don’t have to watch the news for long to see countries where facts are stubbornly denied and contradicted by those who cling to superstition. Change will damage society, these people claim, when what they really mean is their positions of power will be challenged. On a smaller scale, my own Twitter feed is littered on a daily basis with horoscopes posted by people who, in other respects, seem intelligent and insightful. Brecht’s play, first presented in 1937, is very much a chronicle for the early 21st century.
An extra topical note the producers could not have foreseen is the changeover of popes. Galileo looks forward to a less reactionary man in a pointy hat… I wish I could share his optimism.
In an excellent cast, I especially liked Matthew Aubrey as landlady’s son Andrea. We watch him grow from curious young lad to fervent proponent of the new thinking. Philip Whitchurch’s Barberini, Jake Fairbrother’s Ludovico, and Martin Turner’s Cardinal Inquisitor all lend weight and credibility to the ‘other side’; and there is a wonderfully comic moment from Patrick Romer as a ‘very old cardinal’ stomping around, knackering himself out, proclaiming he is the centre of the universe. Jodie McNee is Galileo’s pious daughter – her repeated chanting of “Hail Marys” is disturbing, as she prays her dad will recant his heretical hypotheses. Tom Scott’s design is simple and clean, like a new geometry set on the first day of school. John Woolf leads the band of musicians in some raucous and rousing tunes.
It’s a provocative and compelling production. Silbert and Ravenhill make Brecht accessible and enjoyable, but the evening belongs to McDiarmid – his performance is, dare I say, a tour de ‘Force’?