THEATRE / An appetite for argument: Paul Taylor on The Life of Galileo at the Almeida, London

Paul Taylor
Monday 12 October 2015 14:57

Richard Griffiths was one of the best Volpones of recent times in Bill Alexander's 1983 production at Stratford. Mountainous of bulk and slyly nimble of wit, he conveyed vividly one of Jonson's key points that, for this tricker-hero, the intellectual kick of out-smarting his greedy dukes is as important and visceral a pleasure as revelling decadently in the resulting ill-gotten gains. Griffiths' ability to blur the distinction between mental and carnal appetite is impressive again in this return to Renaissance Italy, where he plays Galileo - the genius 'who cannot resist an old wine or a new idea' and who, through fear and self-indulgence, sells out to authority - at the Almeida in Jonathan Kent's lucid, astringent unfolding of Brecht's great didactic argument of a play.

Some productions end with the sight of Galileo gorging on goose, the sort of bribe to the belly that has made him put his mind on hold. Kent's production doesn't need to do so, for this Galileo sits in his slagheap of compromised, fallible flesh like one who carries the sign and burden of his shame around with him. David Hare's trenchant rejigging of the piece cuts most of the last scene, and leaves us with a haunting juxtaposition. In the background, we see Andrea, Galileo's former pupil, smuggling the Discorsi over the Italian border. Downstage, with his crabbed, Christian daughter (like some Lear / Cordelia act gone horribly wrong), Galileo stares forlornly up at the heavens he has remapped through eyes that are oozing sores. 'Heart-breaking' may not be an honorific term in the Brechtian lexicon, but Griffiths makes this conclusion unforgettably so.

It's also a matter of his low-key, subversive comedy. To begin with, this is directed, in the main, at others, as when he has to suck up to the nine-year-old Prince Cosimo and he refers, with phoney flattery, to 'these new Medicean stars'. Later, the balance tips the other way, as when, fabricating an effusively appreciative response to an archbishop's ramblings, he asks, with an exquisitely throwaway mock-innocence: 'You don't think there's a danger of irony . . .'

In the programme, David Hare argues that the central theme concerns 'a man who comes to realise he has been ethically unequipped to deal with the consequences of his own genius'. Griffiths' performance makes you privy to the pain that belated realisation brings. Not that this is, by any means, a one-man show. The production is cast strongly and is staged with a fine economy using adjustable walls to create the various settings.

The Hare connection makes you wonder whether Brecht's excellent robing scene, where the Pope's resistance to the Grand Inquisitor's vilifying of Galileo weakens as each layer of his finery is laid on him, was perhaps an influence on that other excellent robing scene, where a bishop's resistance hardens, in Hare's own Racing Demon.

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