Monday, November 13, 2006

Theatre Review : The Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht - Olivier (dir Howard Davies 04/09/06)

Galileo's life is undoubtedly endowed with moments of great drama, yet Brecht and David Hare, his adaptor, do not shirk away from didactic exposition - not that this is a fault when the exposition is in the hands of Simon Russell Beale. In the first act, the intellectual foundations of Galileo's thought are set out with clarity and great skill, so that a child (such as his son and collaborator, but not his daughter) might understand.

In Act 2, Galileo is summoned to Rome, an incense-filled sink of decadence. There the opposition is spelt out - although hope is extended in the form of the imminent election to the papal crown of Cardinal Barberini, a scientist (in reality the appalling Pope Julius II, the warrior Pope).

In the third Act, this being Brecht (although Hare has stripped the play of most of its Brechtian superstructure) we start with a song-and-dance routine summarising the trial of Galileo before diving headlong into the intellectual heart of the play. Has Galileo betrayed science by his recantation? Does science - and humanity - take precedence over the intellectual reaction - and instruments of torture - of the Church?

Simon Russell Beale is immense, giving Galileo a humanity which never wavers. The temptation to play Galileo as an eccentric scientist is resisted. He ages visibly before us, yet never loses the sharpness of his tongue or of his wit. It is one of the finest portraits of ageing I have seen.

Oliver Ford Davies exudes menace as the Cardinal Inquisitor, yet there is something about his character that is never quite convinced about the veracity of the beliefs he is trying to protect. For in Brecht's analysis, the power of the Church is inextricably linked with that of the ruling classes. If Galileo's beliefs were upheld, the peasants would start to doubt the truth of the Church and hence the divine order which mandates their subjugation. By extolling the light of Rationalism, Brecht's Galileo is an unwitting political revolutionary.

In this play of many scenes and locations, the Olivier's revolving stage is fully utilised. Clever protean wood panelling moves backwards and forwards, the depth of the stage reflecting the emotional intensity of the scene. Above the stage stretched the steel skeleton of a quadrant of Galileo's globe, behind it stretched the Cosmos with Galileo's celestial bodies moving across it.

Yet this is not a flashy production - at its core are ideas, and the relationship between science and humanity. In the end, despite his recantation, Galileo remains true to his science, to his being. It is a brilliant denouement. We know that science must win, as we are living in an age of scientific enlightenment today. But yet...but yet, as Sarti points out, what would happen if the scientists made a discovery which excited the scientists but put fear into everyone else. Brecht was writing his play as the Hiroshima bomb was being dropped.

There are no easy answers in this complex mixture of epistemology and ethics, as the nature of knowledge, of good and evil, is dissected before you. And yet the sense of drama is never lost, the pace never slackens for a second. It is a sublime piece of theatre.

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