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A Life of Galileo. Photo by Ellie Kurttz
Ian McDiarmid in A Life of Galileo. Photo by Ellie Kurttz.
A Life of Galileo
By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Mark Ravenhill
RSC’s Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, until March 30, 2013
Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell

Roxana Silbert’s new RSC production of Brecht’s great play about Galileo is Brecht-lite, one for those faced with revision notes and exam worries.

There was a time when the decision to stage a Brecht play involved agreeing from the outset how to engage with his revolutionary ideas for staging his work, including his famous ‘alienation effect’. These days, at least in this country, such worries don’t detain directors for a second, with the result that we end up with just the plot and, if we’re lucky, a good translation.

Mark Ravenhill (enfant terrible of Shopping and F***ing fame) has done a workmanlike job here of shortening and simplifying the text and it is certainly the most lucid and concise adaptation you will ever see, but one is left with something that reeks of Theatre-in-Education earnestness rather than a sample of his revolutionary brand of theater making, one which influenced so many.

He may be dead, didactic, Marxist, and have been horrible to his wives (boo), but he deserves better than this from our premier subsidised national theater company. As well as helping teenagers with A-level Science, doesn’t the RSC also have a responsibility to the history of theater and the intentions of the original artist, no matter how unpalatable that might be to bourgeois tastes or current fads? Similarly, why doesn’t the current fetishism with ‘authentic performance’ in Shakespeare, for example, extend to other great dramatists?

Of all Brecht’s plays this is an easy target for dumbing down, as it’s his most conventional piece, resembling an old-fashioned movie biopic about some great historical figure. The story of how, in June 1633, the grand ducal mathematician and philosopher Galileo had knelt before the Inquisition and formally abandoned his opinions of the Copernican theory that the Earth rotates about its own axis and revolves around the sun, is a great one. This first mighty clash between scientific truth and religious scripture set the scene for many more to come, and for Brecht it provided fertile ground in which to explore the responsibility of the scientist to society.

Originally written when he was in hiding in Denmark in 1939, he rewrote it in Hollywood in collaboration with the great actor Charles Laughton, and that reworking first saw the light of day in Beverley Hills, of all places, in 1947. The revision recasts Galileo in a less sympathetic light. It must be remembered this was in the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima and Brecht took an even more dim view of scientists “selling out” to power.

Silbert stages it here with a frantic exuberance and while this bustle is suited to a thrust stage, it does quickly tire. The electronic captions and choruses between scenes, which presumably are meant to “distance”, come across instead as light entertainment distraction, with no edge, although the singing is painful. Curtain numbers, not critical counterpoint.

Costumes and sets combine the modern and the period, which is fine, but in the period elements there is scant attention to detail: an actress not knowing how to use rosary beads, or the Pope being dressed by nuns!

In the lead, Ian McDiarmid, essentially miscast, does try and capture the many sides of Galileo from the larger than life bon vivant, to the petulant self-absorbed truth seeker, who is drunk on his new knowledge. His careless dismissals of his devoted daughter rebounds badly on him when she turns informer.

The play is a compelling portrait of a flawed genius and its brilliance is in how it explores these ethical conundrums with such ease. It’s a pity though that this production is more school pageant than Berliner Ensemble.


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