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Moving heaven and earth

23 February 2013

9:00 AM

23 February 2013

9:00 AM

A Life of Galileo

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in rep until 30 March

Although I’ve some doubt — and this would be applauded by Galileo — whether in everyday life it matters very much to know whether the sun goes round the earth or vice versa, I don’t for one minute doubt that the great physicist’s conflict with Mother Church mattered profoundly and resonates to this day.

To Brecht, writing Das Leben des Galilei in exile in 1938, shortly after the disastrous Chamberlain appeasement, his play asserted unprejudiced scientific inquiry not just against religious dogma but also the controls that fascism and profiteering have ever sought to impose upon it. He gets to this issue way ahead of Michael Frayn’s treatment in Copenhagen of the 1941 debate  between Werner Heisenberg and the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. There’s a nice cross-connection in that Brecht wrote his play in Denmark and had the physics sorted out for him by Bohr’s associates.

There’s further food for thought at Stratford in that Galileo and Shakespeare were both born in 1564, though my jury’s out on whether the Italian’s advocacy of Copernican cosmology was known to Shakespeare or reflected in any of his plays.

Roxana Silbert’s staging of A Life of Galileo (English version by Mark Ravenhill) sees the return to Stratford of Ian McDiarmid in the immensely demanding title role, one on which the likes of Charles Laughton and Michael Gambon have left their mark.

This is a play packed with massive speeches. Silbert’s response is to set a brisk pace, while McDiarmid begins as a mercurial, almost impish figure, leaping around in his briefs as he twitches his eyebrows and entertains his adoring pupils with a dismissive critique of Aristotelian celestial spheres and Ptolemaic astronomy. Unfortunately Brecht is so carried away by his grasp of the physics that Galileo’s expositions meet precious little opposition — until of course they run up against the scriptural rock on which Church and state have built their authority.

But what really interests him is how we change our views with our clothes. This is beautifully shown when Barberini (Philip Whitchurch), who as a mathematician cardinal has ventured his support for Galileo, becomes pope. Standing in déshabillé he has no problem in resisting the Cardinal Inquisitor (Martin Turner) and insisting that two and two cannot make five, but as he’s ceremoniously robed he gradually adopts the mask of authority to the point where he concedes that the Inquisitor may go so far as to show Galileo ‘the instruments’.

Up to this point McDiarmid’s physicist has spryly made some small progress in persuading the prelates to weigh the merits of rational thought and empirical observation. Unsurprisingly, they’re exercised less by his discoveries than by his publishing them in the vernacular rather than in the Latin of privileged discourse. The crux of the play, Galileo’s famous recantation, follows. It’s one about which Brecht, ever the maddening dialectician, changed his mind.

His first idea had been that Galileo was right to have kissed the pope’s toe, thereby avoiding the stake and enabling the continuation, albeit in secret, of his researches. His final thought, as enshrined in his post-war Berliner Ensemble production, was that Galileo is to be blamed for failing to stand up to the Inquisition, whatever the consequences. At Stratford, the McDiarmid who reappears after his recantation is a broken Galileo, a crumpled figure who gives every impression of having been more than merely ‘shown’ the instruments.

But McDiarmid also powerfully suggests that Galileo has been no less broken by his apostasy, the self-betrayal of everything he’s stood for. Understandable then that his justificatory speech should at first be scarcely audible, though rising to an angry condemnation of Authority for seizing upon science only for its own wicked ends. Brechtian irony resurfaces in the very last scene. Here, the findings of the research he’s been able to complete even under house arrest are smuggled out of Italy to posterity by a pupil only because the border guards can’t be bothered with books and MSS as they’re less important than picking up a bit of money elsewhere.

Silbert’s staging is authentically Brechtian in its use of PA announcements and captions to frame each scene. Dress and undress are all over the centuries, though the cardinals are always impressively scarlet. The touch is light, the action fast-moving and the characterisations just the right side of caricature. The nine-year-old Grand Duke of Florence, excited by Galileo’s orbital notions, translates theory into practice by whizzing his toy scooter round in a circle. There are lots of graph-paper backdrops and mobile red stepladders such as you might find in a library but which here furnish observatories for the crucial telescope and vantage points for the populace’s commentary on the physicist’s tussles with the authorities. The over-rumbustious mid-point Carnival procession is doubtless conjured up, mistakenly, to punctuate the otherwise pretty relentless verbal flow of physics, political theology and piety. But don’t be discouraged, this is one of Brecht’s best plays and it’s given by a strong ensemble and with an unmissable central performance from Ian McDiarmid.

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