The RSC’s A Life Of Galileo is like a mighty but slightly ailing engine; it takes a little while to get going, but once it does the payoff is marvellous. Part of the problem is that Brecht is quite a preachy playwright. Throughout the play we learn an enormous amount about Galileo himself but also about physics and astronomy, easily enough to inspire any budding scientist. The issue comes in that towards the start of first act, the sheer volume of information can be slightly overwhelming, but very quickly the actors help us settle in. There was no weak link in this chain: the entire ensemble was very strong and entirely convincing, there was a lot of multi-role-ing and every new character felt completely original. Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of the eponymous hero deserves a highlighted mention. His passion was electric, his righteous indignation was palpable and his aging was spellbindingly subtle, to say he was a ‘strong’ Galileo would be an understatement – he was a marvel. The evolution of all the cast’s characters was a major strength of the play, with Matthew Aubrey’s Andrea going from steadfast but hapless student to studious and principled teacher. Jodie McNee’s Virginia was just as pleasing in a slow transformation from lovesick girl to devout and doting daughter, the sense of time passing in this production was stellar.
The RSC has stuck admirably to the play’s Brechtian roots, not just with regard to the aforementioned multi-role-ing. We also have his famous ‘alienation effect’ wonderfully implemented, with bright lights hanging from the ceiling informing us of the next location the play is moving to and little interludes of cabaret-style singing to fill us in on what we don’t see. The intention is to continuously remind us we’re in the theatre and it works beautifully. The costumes themselves invoke a timeless feel as well; at first it appears that it’s set in the modern day but soon after we are treated to elements of Renaissance dress slipping into the mix. This is quite jarring at first, but the mixture of present and past does grow seamless by the second half.
The set is minimalist, just giving us a sense of scene rather than presenting us with it, the only props tend to be mentioned during the play and are there more for plot than for decoration. A series of red stepladders are used to give actors height to suggest their status, as a water basin or even just to create a sense of space, they proved to be very versatile and innovative pieces of set. The lighting too was pleasingly subtle, creating atmosphere when it was required and acting as the sun when we receiving a lesson in astronomy.
This really is a very inspiring production and I do wholly recommend it. Brilliantly acted and strikingly directed, it really would be difficult to leave the theatre without feeling you’ve learned something new and been entertained along the way.
A Life Of Galileo is playing at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s home in Stratford until 30 March. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Shakespeare Company website.
Photo by Ellie Kurtz.