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Wednesday, 27 February 2013

A Life of Galileo
Bertolt Brecht, translated by Mark Ravenhill. 
Directed by Roxana Silbert 
Swan Theatre,
Until 30 March 2013
Reviewed on 13th February 2013 by Alice Leake age 24

A Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Mark Ravenhill.  Directed by Roxana Silbert at the RSC Swan Theatre, 13th February 2013.

The current RSC season takes a look at what else was going on in the world during Shakespeare’s lifetime, A Life of Galileo is the Italian input into this “World Elsewhere” theme. The play is in essence a debate between scientific logic and religious faith.  An enjoyable, light hearted and humorous script devised by Mark Ravenhill and Roxana Silbert’s lively direction have the audience captivated from the word go.  Galileo believes that fact based research and development is key to human advancement, whereas the church considers these issues less important than giving people a purpose in life, as faith does.  The church argues that science irresponsibly draws us away from humanity by quashing religions legitimacy, thereby leaving humans on a par with animals.  With debates on issues such as IVF, abortion and euthanasia constantly in and out of the headlines, this question of science’s social responsibility resonates with modern day audiences.  The majority of people in Britain accept that science is factual and those that are religious generally come to terms with this by marrying the two together.  However, in America there are still schools that teach religion in science lessons, so the idea “God created the world, Adam and Eve and everything we see” is readily received as fact.  A Life of Galileo dramatises this debate by focusing on Galileo’s struggle to publish work that would contradict biblical teachings on the cosmos.  After evading the church’s powerful autonomy for years, he is eventually branded a heretic, caught and forced to recant his findings.  This plot proves extremely interesting.  Viewing Galileo’s personal story gives the play depth and we learn about the origins of scientific theories we now take for granted.   

Mark Ravenhill has translated Brecht’s play wonderfully, it is witty and engaging and he has given director Roxana Silbert the means to create a production that feels fresh and playful.  The direction is full of contrasts that keep the audience on their toes - one moment involving them directly, the next leaving them a fly on the wall.  We get off to a brilliant start as actor Ian McDiarmid (Galileo) introduces the first scene through a large red microphone; his booming voice is accompanied by LED light strips that flash the key words above the stage and along the balconies, a real credit to lighting designer Rick Fisher.  This method of introducing new scenes was repeated by other members of the cast throughout the play and was crucial to the audiences understanding as the modern and abstract sets did little to convey a time and place.  However, this is not a criticism, designer Tom Scutt has done the production justice by allowing the audience room for imagination.  The visual impact of large sheets of bright blue graph paper cascading down from the orchestra balcony left a strong first impression on entering the theatre and his modern costumes complimented the show by helping the audience to keep the play’s contemporary connotations in mind. 

In terms of execution Jodie McNee (Galileo’s daughter) was excellent.  In the scene where she waited to hear if her father would recant, her frantic prayers had many of the audience fighting back tears.  Philip Whitchurch’s performance also stood out, his comic timing was superb as ever.  In one scene, Whitchurch compelled the audience to enjoy the surreal onslaught of a song that had the cast raucously stomping around the stage in bizarre makeup and costumes, bouncing on gym balls and wheeling hoola-hoops crying “who doesn’t want to be their own master”.   The real genius of this piece though, was the scintillating performance of Ian McDiarmid as Galileo.  At times he was full of dry wit, mischievous and petulant but as the play progressed and the church began to persecute Galileo, he showed a man whose spirit had been broken but not lost its rambunctious core.  I was deeply impressed by his surprising and charismatic performance, throughout the play he undulated with a turbulence of emotions that brought the character to life and enchanted the audience.  His acting actually over shadowed a few of the other performers who seemed a little over rehearsed in comparison.

However, overall this play really delivered.  The RSC have managed to create a Galileo that the audience can relate to, a thought provoking and touching interpretation that at times had the audience on the edge of their seat.  This, plus lashings of theatrics made for a deliciously entertaining show that should not be missed.  You can catch it in Stratford-Upon-Avon from now until the 30th March.

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