A three-hour-plus taxi journey from the Midlands back to London due to a rail company's incompetent scheduling left me plenty of time to muse on the issue of social responsibility as it pervades Brecht's The Life Of Galileo. In one of the play's central exchanges, a young monk (played by the excellent Mark Rice-Oxley) disavows Galileo's cosmology, although he knows it to be true, because such a universe would leave his peasant parents bereft of solace for their lives of grind. The astronomer responds that it is precisely such a universe that will free those people of suffering under the yoke in order to pay for the wars of dukes and popes.
It is probably the most overtly Marxist point in David Edgar's lucid version of the play, which manages to be unfussily demotic and yet argumentatively precise. Edgar has set out, with some success, to do right by the differences of emphasis in Brecht's various texts: Galileo's fervent belief in propagating truth as a noble goal in itself (and his subsequent self-recrimination after his forced recantation), and also his commitment to science as a means of advancing the common good. This Galileo is almost prouder of his water pump design than of his observational proof that an immobile Earth is not the centre of the universe. Edgar also glances at our current state of affairs, in which more and more science seems to hinge on doubt whilst religious bodies grow more shrilly doctrinaire and impinge on matters temporal and even scientific.
On the press night, Timothy West was still groping a little in passages where familiar and more arcane vocabulary jostled together, but he always has the gift of seeming to focus his concentrated gaze on some great abstract just behind the veil of ordinary vision. David Peart excels in a series of roles from Galileo's Venetian senator friend to the scientist Cardinal Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII, whose loyalty to the Church finally outweighs his appetite for knowledge. John Woodvine has only two or three significant scenes as the Cardinal Inquisitor, but naturally embodies an opposition at once subtle and, if necessary, brutal. Short commentaries sung by a vocal trio provide a nod to Brechtian alienation, although the use as a refrain of the protagonist's name "Galileo Galilei" does rather leave one waiting for the "...figaro, magnifico".
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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