A Life of Galileo, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


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The Independent Culture

The RSC round off their “World Elsewhere” season now with Roxana Silbert's astringent and vigorous modern-dress revival of Brecht's Galileo.

It uses a sharp new adaptation by Mark Ravenhill that emphasises the dark comedy and diversely rich theatrical inventiveness in a piece that Brecht kept revising as developments in physics and world politics threw new light on the vexed central question of the social responsibility of scientists. 

The dramatist came to think that his initial conception – that Galileo recanted in public so that he could continue to work in secret as an act of undercover resistance – was inadequate and cheap. 

The shadow of Hiroshima falls over the 1947 version which is the basis for this production and here the protagonist eventually becomes a self-despising figure who feels that, in failing to stand up to the Catholic Church, he betrayed both science and mankind, turning scientists into (as Ravenhill acridly phrases it) “a race of inventing pygmies who can be sold to the highest bidder”.

Yet even here Ian McDiarmid's electrifying portrayal continues to be wonderfully ambiguous. The now shrunken man, under long house arrest, delivers this negative verdict on himself with more than a streak of triumphant arrogance as though he's grimly pleased to be way ahead of the pack in the epic scale of his disillusion. 

And of course at the same time you can see him cunningly calculating the effect of his words on his former young disciple Andrea (a winningly Welsh-accented and stroppy Matthew Aubrey) who will be tasked with smuggling the Discorsi out of Italy.  The contradictions crackle with a sardonically conscious irony in McDiarmid's Galileo --- a foxy, slippery, hard-headed, half-whimsical visionary and and impassioned seeker of empirical truth who is not above trying to pass off the invention of the telescope as his own when it suits him. 

Performed against Tom Scutt's blue graph-paper design, the Brechtian effects sometimes feel a tad strenuous with additional information sent out as LED readouts on dangling screens and with nuns singing the rhymed introduction into oversize microphones. 

The rapping blasphemous carnival intended to show the sacrilegious impact of Galileo's discoveries on the social order comes over more as a wild end-of-term romp than (in either sense of term) a riot. But in a week when papal succession has been much on our minds, the fact that the election of Galileo's liberal-seeming friend proves to a false dawn and the rather sinister sight of all those implacably immemorial vestments speak volumes. Recommended.  

To March 30; 0844 800 1110