A Life of Galileo, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

With most front-rank male actors of a certain age, one finds oneself anticipating their King Lear. (It was recently announced that Simon Russell Beale is to be the next major contender in the Lear stakes.) In the case of Ian McDiarmid (pictured), however, I wonder whether he is not more perfectly attuned to Brecht’s protagonist, as suggested by his performance in Roxana Silbert’s Royal Shakespeare Company production.

He begins with exceeding animation, as if this Galileo is literally energised by learning and each new discovery has all the excitement of a new game. As his observation-based cosmological theories begin to draw the critical attention of the Catholic Church, he first clings to his belief that knowledge as an absolute good must triumph, then, after his forced recantation, invests every line with a coruscating cynicism ... yet still without giving up his devotion to, as he would put it, limiting the amount of ignorance in the world.

Brecht bookends his play with instances of infraction, of knowledge circumventing official channels: Galileo first tries to sell the idea for the telescope to the Venetian republic after nicking it from reports of the optical instrument in Holland, and the play ends with a manuscript copy of his book Two New Sciences being smuggled out of Papal territory for clandestine publication. Compare the contemporary battle-cry “Information wants to be free” in opposition to attempted online restrictions.

Brecht was not attacking the Church simply because it was the Church but, rather, because it represented a major temporal power of the kind that entrenched orthodoxies protect. As one of those obtrusive Brechtian musical numbers (staged by Silbert in an equally obtrusive carnival style amid her modern-dress production) phrases the liberating potential of the new discoveries, “Better face it: who doesn’t want to be their own master?”

Mark Ravenhill’s translation uses the indefinite article in the title, in acknowledgment that no single version can be authoritative and/or of the numerous rewrites Brecht himself undertook. McDiarmid receives strong support from, among others, Joel Gillman as the “Little Monk” and Matthew Aubrey as Galileo’s housekeeper’s son, both won over to join his research team. And in a beautifully detailed piece of set dressing, in the final scene I could just make out the title of one of a suitcaseful of books: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Physicists, which questions Galileo’s entire attitude.


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