In an age where there is irrefutable evidence for science and an overwhelming urge to further knowledge, it seems almost imponderable that a mere few hundred years ago authorities shunned the work of one of the most progressive thinkers of their time. Yet even today, one of the world’s most scientifically evolved nations is awash with schools that praise students for preaching creationist theories and berate them for acknowledging Darwinism or similar scientific trains of thought.
The RSC’s production is thus refreshingly insightful. Roxanna Silbert’s direction has skilfully realised the relevance of Brecht’s Galileo, adopting a contemporary edge that highlights the inherent theatricality of Mark Ravenhill’s recent translation. It’s a production littered with, but never overwhelmed by, Brechtian techniques that add life and exuberance into the tale. Tom Scutt’s bold design, consisting of walls of oversized graph paper, hints at the scenes before us yet leaves the setting cunningly undefined. It suggests that the value of knowledge and the prioritisation of research is a crucial predicament for all ages.
Hailed as the father of modern science by Albert Einstein, in the seventeenth century Galileo ruptured long-standing belief in the Ptolemaic model – the geocentric idea that the Earth is the centre of the universe around which everything else orbits – and shook the Catholic church to its core with his declaration that this was false. His discovery wasn’t in fact entirely new, but was drawn from Copernicus’s earlier workings that indicated that the (now proven) heliocentric model was correct – that the sun sits at the centre of our universe. This way of thinking was greatly problematic for the church, who were swift to declare Galileo’s views as heresy. It was demanded that he publicly recant and clearly announce the errors of his work to his, by then, rapidly-growing following.
Ian McDiarmid is fiercely compelling as Galileo: his face lights up at the mere mention of a new theory and his body is lifted, infused with a youthful energy as he bounds across the stage delighting in his discoveries. Galileo’s exuberant joy pours freely out of McDiarmid from the opening, which renders his later recant all the more shocking. All of a sudden he is fragile and weathered but, importantly, none the less devoted – as we soon learn. Remarkably, his deflated and sullen presence whilst locked away still pervades the theatre, a sign of the commanding nature of both the accomplished actor before us and the outstanding scholar he represents.
The multi-roling cast are also striking in their consistency. In particular, Matthew Aubrey as Andrea moves fluidly from a young, eager boy thirsty for each last drop of knowledge, to a mature and understanding man, deeply aware of the gravity of Galileo’s predicament. Throughout he maintains a strong sense of idealism and awe for the power of science – a solid reminder of the prominence of Galileo’s work.
A Life of Galileo is playing at the Rose Theatre until 29 March. For more information and tickets, see the Rose Theatre Kingston website.