“A Life of Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht

in a new translation by Mark Ravenhill at the Swan Theatre, Tuesday 12th February 2013

Originally written for Exeunt.

Roxana Silbert’s production of Brecht’s A Life of Galileo is rather exquisitely timed. In a time when the science and reason movement really feels like it has the potential to change the way we think for the better and governments slash research budgets without remorse, the story of the life of the great Italian mathematician says much about our current historical moment. Even more bizarre, however, is the way in which this production discusses the place of the Catholic Church especially between Popes (though, looking at the text, I’m pretty sure a line about the Pope resigning must have been added in in the last couple of days).

The play is a clear hymn for the glories of human reason, and the problems with mixing science and ideology, as the eponymous hero is forced to recant his discoveries proving true the Copernican system in order to save his life. In Mark Ravenhill’s translation, it feels like we get a little more sympathy for Galileo than Brecht’s original suggests, as it becomes clear that the stance of this production is to demonstrate that the protagonist is put upon by oppressive, dogmatic state forces working against him. The most questionable aspect of this man is the way he treats his daughter Virginia, especially seeing as, in a world where the Higgs Boson is widely discussed and images of the stars hungrily consumed, it is easy to side with the man who has reason on his side.

Ian McDiarmid’s collected performance as Galileo is the beating heart of the production, beginning as a smart, assured scientist living off the joy of his discoveries even though he’s grossly underpaid. The sparkle in his eyes as he explains the universe is intoxicating, and makes his final descent into solemnity and semi-insanity all the more tragic. Even then, however, as he sits slumped in a chair, there is still the glimmer of the stars present in his eyes, as he passes on his manuscript to Andrea, who has shifted from his student to his protégé. The future lies in youth.

I was initially unsure about the decision to cast the adult Matthew Aubrey as the young Andrea, but having this consistency throughout actually ends up making a lot of sense. Seeing his development as both a thinker as a young man as the years progress, the play becomes just as much his as Galileo’s.

Though the position of contemporary authorities to shifts in knowledge is better now than it was in both Brecht’s and Galileo’s contexts, there are still times when it feels like some in power would wish many of us to stay ignorant (or at least not discover things which differ from their opinions). In Silbert’s production, there is a clear warning that we ought to be careful of cuts to university budgets and continue to fight for higher spending in areas of knowledge and research.

The aesthetic of Tom Scutt’s design could probably be defined as ‘semi-Brechtian’, taking hints of the German’s thinking and applying them to the modern stage. Dot matrices hang vertically from the ceiling for example, spelling out descriptions from each scene in a style reminiscent of The Matrix, and scene changes occur simply by winding up the graph-paper backdrop and wheeling on whatever is needed for the following scene (staircases on wheels, tables and chairs). Lighting by Rick Fisher suggests where we look to get a better understanding.

Brechtian moments pepper the show but never overwhelm the story (which can be either a good or a bad thing depending on your tastes). At the beginning of each scene, the poems written by Brecht are set to music by Nick Powell, allowing comments on what is happening to permeate, whilst a carnival at the opening of the second act facilitates the singing of “Who doesn’t want to be their own master?”.

On occasion, the supporting cast is a little underwhelming (though in Galileo they perform better than in the other two ‘World Elsewhere’ plays) but with McDiarmid at the centre this doesn’t feel like much of an issue. I also wouldn’t mind a little more chutzpah on occasion, but there is no doubt that Silbert’s focus on the text demonstrates A Life of Galileo to be a truly great modern classic.

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