“It’s funny how plays change their meaning night by night,” says Mark Ravenhill on his adaptation of Brecht’s Life of Galileo. “For the next few nights the audience are going to see it as about a change in Pope.” We’re in the Swan Bar of Stratford-Upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre before the press night of Galileo, Ravenhill’s first production for the RSC as writer-in-residence. Best known for his plays Shopping and Fucking, Mother Clap’s Molly House and the recent cycle Shoot/ Get Treasure/ Repeat, Ravenhill’s residency has been heralded by many as a “shot in the arm” for new writing at the company. He’s also often said to be friendly and engaging in person, and I’m pleased to find this is true: sitting beside me on the sofa, he’s immediately open and charming, complimenting my trousers as I flap around anxiously with notes and dictaphone before we start. In Life of Galileo, Ravenhill says, “one pope is dying, a new Pope’s arriving, and Galileo has great hopes of the new Pope being more liberal and understanding of science,” but the play’s interrogation of the relationship between technology, religion and the state carries a contemporary significance beyond this obvious parallel: Galileo “gives you the real visceral excitement of scientific discovery… It’s absolutely a pro-science play, but one with a sting in the tail: if we don’t all share in the profits of science, literally money profits, but also intellectual, ethical profits, then it can harm us.”
Life of Galileo dramatises the physicist’s research into a new model of the universe that puts the sun at its centre, opposing the geocentric dogma of the Catholic Church. “Most drama that deals with science is basically anti-science; science is out to get us, or the thing that takes us away from ourselves,” Ravenhill suggests, adding that the marriage of science and art is as present in the play’s form as its content: “Brecht could see a really clear line between the method of the scientist and the method of the dramatist”, he says, citing the playwright’s emphasis on “learning to think methodically, to observe, to break someone down into a series of tasks and checking results, always questioning.” In fact, “Brecht was really a great realist – we tend to think of [Brecht’s theatre] as some kind of attack on naturalism, which is true, but actually it’s not at all about artifice, theatre as theatre, its theatre that’s trying to find any way to get reality onto the stage.”
Given his distinctive writing style, I wonder whether audiences will recognise a Ravenhill resonance in this new version – “I’ve tried as much as I can to capture what I think is the voice of the play and of Brecht’s writing,” he answers. Aware, perhaps, that he is most often associated with his first play Shopping and Fucking, Ravenhill speculates that “the crude image of me is that somehow I’d up the number of swearwords and –” anal knifing, I pitch in, and instantly regret it “– Galileo plus swearwords and anal knifing, yeah. So there certainly isn’t that. Maybe people who have a different knowledge of my work might recognise something.” I’ve heard that he tends to take a practical and experimental approach to playwriting – pool (no water), for example, was developed alongside its cast in collaboration with Frantic Assembly directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett – did Life of Galileo evolve in rehearsal? “Not too much,” he replies. In adapting the work, “I had the German text and I had an English academic translation, so I just read the German aloud to get the sound and feel of it on the tongue – basically it was just me alone in a room acting it out.” As for whether this differs to his usual process, Ravenhill laughs: “every play has been totally different – I can’t say I’ve managed to boil it down to anything as dignified as a ‘process’.” It may come as some assurance to aspiring writers that his approach has been “totally different every time, from more or less having nothing but a pile of scraps on the first day of rehearsal, to writing half-drafts on the hoof as we go, to even a couple of times arriving in rehearsal with pretty much the play that’s the one that’s performed.”
Since this interview, Ravenhill’s residency at the RSC has been extended for a further year, and when I meet him it’s clear that he is proud to be involved with the institution. In fact, Ravenhill considers that the RSC owes much of its ethos and aesthetic to the influence of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble: in terms of design, “that very sort of real fabric, real wood and real metal and real sackcloth” and in performance, its concentration on being “about an ensemble of actors” rather than producing star vehicles. When I suggest that the company has become somewhat safer since its foundation, Ravenhill insists “it’s much more a case of gradually evolving at the RSC – of course there are going to be periods where it sits back a bit and acts a bit steady, and investigates and asks again, ‘why are we doing Shakespeare? How are we doing Shakespeare?’” and points out the ways in which it rebelled against the original Stratford season, which was “very much built around stars”; as he puts it, “you can’t exactly recapture that big turn”.
Ravenhill believes “the track record of new writing at the RSC is really good. Obviously it’s not all year round and it’s not in London, so it doesn’t have the profile of stuff at the Royal Court, but new writing’s always been a part of what the RSC does”. When I ask whether he hopes his residency will pave the way for more and better new writing at Stratford, it’s obvious he’s been expecting the question. “Who knows?” he asks, clarifying “I don’t have any particular axe to grind about them doing more new writing. I think they are the RSC, the main thing they should focus on is doing Shakespeare really well,” although “one of the things about doing Shakespeare really well is to expose actors and audiences to new plays, which keep on questioning why Shakespeare wrote, and how Shakespeare works.” Ultimately, he reflects that the RSC strikes a successful balance: “it’s much healthier to have the two sitting side by side”.
He’s troubled, however, about what the next few years may hold for theatres generally in the wake of cuts to arts funding. “I think the level at which whole cities are going to absolutely lose all of their arts is something we didn’t really contemplate even five years ago,” Ravenhill ponders, though he’s optimistic that writers will fare comparatively well in this harsh climate: whereas “if you want to direct or act, you have to have somebody give you permission and the resources,” he reasons, “the great thing about writing is that you can just write. If you really want to write a play, there isn’t anybody stopping you… and then if you write a really good play, somebody will put it on.”
With the buzz of the ten-minute call blaring across the bar, I swiftly ask Mark Ravenhill a final question: If money’s not such an issue then, what is the biggest risk to new writing? He pauses for a second. “The biggest risk to new writing is writers not feeling confident enough to explore their own voice. The biggest risk to new writing,” he repeats, “is writers waiting for some sort of permission from an artistic director or literary manager to find out what they should be writing.” This tendency of playwriting to please, he stresses, is particularly prevalent in “the generation brought up on the national curriculum, and SATs and stuff. This generation that’s used to saying, ‘what are the rules? What are the aims and objectives? How do I fulfil the aims and objectives?’ …There’s a danger that these people arrive at a theatre and say ‘tell me what you want from a play – what are the aims and objectives of your theatre?’ And then a play is written with that mentality… that’s the deadliest thing.” Watching Ravenhill’s version of Life of Galileo later that night – a satisfyingly fresh take that certainly achieves his intention of “finding an English equivalent that’s equally energetic, light and springy and funny” – I consider this advice. Questioning and breaking the rules, after all, has always produced the most vital and illuminating work; had Galileo listened to the church, we might still believe the sun orbits the earth.
Life of Galileo plays at The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon until Saturday 30 March. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/a-life-of-galileo/.
Image credit: Ian McDiarmid in A Life of Galileo by Tristam Kenton