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A Life of Galileo

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Perhaps there is a delicious irony that this play (which exposes the way the Roman Catholic Church suppressed the scientific truths that Galileo discovered) has opened at a time when the eyes of the world are focussed on the Vatican as they begin their search for a new Pope. Certainly it adds new resonances to a play that still has much to tell us about the battle between science and faith.

Brecht may have been a revolutionary but, like many radicals, he may have been disturbed to see that his ideas have become so mainstream. 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.

The production is centred around the magisterial and mercurial performance of Ian McDiarmid. 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.

The Swan ensemble continues to show why the RSC has continued to follow this casting concept. They all take their individual roles with confidence and bags of personality. This is at its most vibrant and theatrically potent in the Carnival scene where the ensemble storm the stage with a powerful song, "Who doesn't want to be their own Master?", which is quite simply mesmerising - and reminds us how Brecht can still surprise us today.

It's hard to pick out individuals for praise in what is a true ensemble performance. Matthew Aubrey, however, does stand out as the innocent and trusting Andrea. So eager to learn and to challenge his tutor Galileo, Aubrey takes us on his journey with great humour and warmth, and makes his disillusionment with his master's recantation perhaps the most moving moment of the evening.

As ever with the RSC, the quality of the craft in terms of set, costume and lighting design is top notch. The same is also true of the music (composed by Nick Powell) – which honours Brecht's long-time collaboration with Kurt Weill whilst never merely aping the sound world of The Threepenny Opera.

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.


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