Review: A Life of Galileo

Nora Galland 10 April 2014

This production of A Life of Galileo was highly symbolic and didactic – a truly Brechtian play. The emphasis was laid from the beginning on movement and change to show what is at stake with Galileo’s findings in support of heliocentrism. The director Roxana Silbert wanted this performance to teach the audience the basics of Galileo’s scientific discovery, but above all she wanted to insist on the danger of dogmatic thinking and the threat of absolute, conservative ideologies freezing free thinking; this message came out very strongly.

In this performance, the Church was accused of manipulating people to promote only the Christian view of the world, at the expense of any other point of view. The Pope and his priests were represented as old greedy fools eager for power. When one of the Cardinals (Patrick Romer) entered the stage, he appeared on a rolling structure, making him stand higher than the other characters and look down on the world and the scientist. Cosimo de Medici (Chris Lew Kum Hoi) wandered on stage, playing with a scooter like a child, without knowing exactly where to go; this successfully conveyed his role as a powerless authority.

The firm nature and down-to-earth attitude of Galileo (Ian McDiarmid) emphasized the horizontality of his thinking. Contrary to the religious and political figures, Galileo’s blocking on stage was never random, and his movements were always meaningful. On the one hand, he said “the earth is on the move” while turning his chair on its wheels. On the other, he declared “everything’s moving” when jumping in a puddle of water and creating a micro-tsunami to make his point. When Galileo told Andrea, the young boy (Matthew Aubrey), of a looming “new dawning age”, he made him sit down on a chair while turning it.

Galileo’s dialogue with the young Andrea was quite didactic for the spectator, who was actually given a lecture on physics 101. The most important lesson given by Galileo was done with the help of an apple – the symbol of the Bible’s tree of knowledge and also standing for Newton’s later work on gravity. Similar symbolism could be found at other points during the production through the use of a game of chess and of a hollow globe containing the manuscript of Galileo's works, both of which worked towards the didactic purpose to great effect. Lighting was used throughout to create giant shadows of the actors on the cloth at the back of the stage – thus echoing the gist of the allegory of the cave developed by Plato.

Thus, this production was clearly about teaching the audience the lessons of Galileo. A play by Brecht is not about the plot: each scene was summed up before the entrance of the actors by the introduction of a singing prologue and a short sentence (appearing on a digital screen on stage). The issue at stake was not what was going to happen, but how – how would we, the spectators, understand the lesson of this production?

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