Ian McDiarmid has returned to the Royal Shakespeare Company for the
first time since 1985 to lead the cast of a new version of
Brecht’s A Life of Galileo, which opened this week (12 February 2013).
The play, which is directed by Roxana Silbert using a new translation by Mark Ravenhill, charts the 17th century scientist’s extraordinary fight with the church over his assertion that the earth orbits the sun.
A Life of Galileo runs in the RSC’s Swan Theatre to 30 March 2013 in repertoire with The Orphan of Xhao and Boris Godunov as part of the A World Elsewhere trilogy.
Roxana Silbert (director) and Mark Ravenhill (translator) have certainly honoured the originator of The Life of Galileo with a version that bears all the hallmarks of Brechtian style but their lightness of touch and clarity of storytelling means that we focus entirely on the characters and less on the technique... There is a palpable sense of an actor thoroughly enjoying himself in a role and that enthusiasm sweeps the audience along through what, in lesser hands, could have been a series of very complex and possibly turgid interactions. He relishes the language (Ravenhill's new version brings out some wonderfully Shakespearean turns of phrase) and, though some might find his vocal pyrotechnics a little self-indulgent, for me it works. It's McDiarmid's show - and a personal triumph... This is a strong and engaging production of a strong and engaging new translation. It's exactly what we all want the RSC to continue to do – and there is every sign that under Gregory Doran, that is what we're going to get.
In any version, Mark Ravenhill’s pithy new translation included, it’s a play in which the rest of the cast revolves around Galileo. And McDiarmid is electrifying as a man trying to prove his point with a mixture of charm, arrogance and pure rationality. Wearing the shabby-smart clobber of a modern academic - only the emissaries of the Church tend to look 17th century in Tom Scutt’s bare-stage design, played in front of a blue graph-paper backdrop - he’s a man of reason. But he’s a flim-flam man, too, when he wants to be. We root for him as he takes on those who treat facts as treachery, but we also see the cost his daughter pays for his principles... This is a lively rendition of a remarkably rich play whose account of the clash between evidence and vested interests is both timeless and, here and there, particularly pertinent. “One of the great pleasures of the human race is thinking,” says Galileo, trying to rebut the notion that academic study is only worthwhile if it bolsters the free market.
I was at first thrown by the updating: it seems odd to find a 17th-century debate about the solar system staged in contemporary clothes. But you soon forget that, because Brecht was writing as much about the present as the past... And in this version of the text, which Brecht revised in 1947 in the shadow of Hiroshima, the recanting Galileo becomes a self-hating figure who betrays the scientist's responsibility to humanity... All this emerges strongly in Ian McDiarmid's spellbinding performance. His Galileo starts out as a scruffy obsessive, with shirt hanging out of his trousers, wholly dedicated to reason, research and astronomical investigation... Tom Scutt's design ingeniously uses newsreel tapes to convey factual information, and there is a host of good supporting performances: Jodie McNee as Galileo's daughter, Matthew Aubrey as his most loyal acolyte and Martin Turner as an inflexible Inquisitor all impress.
I found myself gripped by this lively and ultimately moving production which makes big ideas zing and sing, and features a terrific performance from Ian McDiarmid as the scientist who maintained that the earth moved round the sun to the dismay of the Roman Catholic Church... You get the full Brecht deal here, complete with wheezy brass band and Brecht’s notorious alienation devices updated to the 21st century. LED displays give the date and location of each scene, and the doggerel verses that summarise the subject matter are retained. The show is also largely staged in modern dress just in case we fail to draw the contemporary parallels about both the dangers of science and the desire of reactionaries to turn back the clock... Yet somehow the show works, thanks to the vitality of Roxana Silbert’s staging and Ravenhill’s nifty and highly theatrical script, which pares down Brecht’s sometimes interminable speeches while retaining their essence. A show that usually lasts more than three hours here clocks in at just two and a half.
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... Yet even here Ian McDiarmid's electrifying portrayal continues to be wonderfully ambiguous... 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... 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.