BWW Reviews: A LIFE OF GALILEO, Rose Theatre Kingston, March 25 2014
Recently, contemplating Michelangelo's Pieta in St Peter's Basilica, I mused on the extraordinarily successful relationship of Faith and Art - as one is more or less obliged to when in Rome. The relationship of Faith and Science has been rather less fecund, generating more heat than light. Even today, people take sides over school curricula and medical practice, for example. The relationship between Faith and Science - at least on the surface - is the subject of A Life of Galileo (at the Rose Theatre Kingston until March 29 and on tour).
At about the same time that Shakespeare was looking anew at language in England, Galileo was looking (literally - through a telescope) anew at the skies in Italy. His observations led him to assert - later to prove - that the Earth orbited the Sun and not, as the Church's teaching insisted, that the Sun (and all the other stars) orbited the Earth. It wasn't great science (a child can grasp the key points of the heliocentric model in minutes) nor even innovative (others had suggested the very same earlier - and paid with their lives), but it was revolutionary. It was also credible, as Galileo teemed with ideas that he proved to be correct in experiments and had a huckster's gift for self-publicity. The peasantry, treated little better than dogs by the priestly caste and granted little more than a labrador's intelligence, couldn't be trusted to know their place if Church dogma were revealed as barking mad. Something had to be done about Galileo and his growing band of acolytes.
Ian McDiarmid plays Galileo as a bon viveur, as an ecccentric iconoclast, as a man ruthlessly committed to his science (casually forcing his daughter's engagement to be broken on the altar of truth) - until he is shown the instruments by which The Inquisition addresses heresy like his. It's a bravura performance with a cunning sting in its tail. He gets excellent support from a cast that bear the mark of the RSC, whose production this is, with Matthew Aubrey as his most committed follower, Andrea, and Katherine Manners as his cruelly treated daughter, the aptly named Virginia, the standouts.
It's Brecht, of course, and with Brecht comes both the conventions of epic theatre - megaphones announce each scene and there's a lot of mooching about slightly offstage - and plenty of politics, with the authorities' fear of the quiescent masses' waking up to its power running like a river through all the scientific arguments. There are times when Galileo himself gets a bit too preachy, times when he gets a bit too quirky and times when he gets a bit too pleased with himself, but McDiarmid keeps the charisma coming and we know that he wins in the end - even if it did take nearly 400 years.
Photo - Ellie Kurttz