Advances in science can revolutionise the world, bringing great change to health, agriculture, and where we see ourselves in the universe. But there are some people who don’t want the world to change. Life of Galileo reflects the mind’s paradox back at the audience and circles history around an age old opposition.
Bertolt Brecht’s original play literally traces the life of Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei (Colin Friels) over the course of his argumentation that the Earth rotated around the sun, not the other way around as the Church had purported for centuries. His opponents are enormous, including the Pope and the blood-chilling Inquisition, and, as such, Brecht’s play stretches to encompass the breadth of the human mind from science to religion and the depth of possibility in between. This adaptation by Tom Wright is explained as a concentration: refining the ideas into key conversations and characters, distilling the potency of two men’s work into another.
Set design from Zoe Atkinson arranges this whittled script in a bare round with parquetry flooring and under-lighting that gives a modern-chic feeling. Galileo’s astronomy model of the Solar System are also made of smooth wood and chrome spheres like feigned vintage mixed with the futuristic, an homage to age and a nod to the future. While the play remains set in the early 17th century, the costuming is contemporary which serves to shrink the distance between 1610 and 2019, further emphasising the swirling repetitions of history.
The mashup of the old and new world is the defining factor of Eamon Flack’s Life of Galileo but the sharpness of this relief doesn’t necessarily cut through. To place marvelling at the “invention” of the telescope within a world with characters snapping selfies on mobile phones, security guards radioed-up, and casual wristwatch usage subtly undermines the revolution of technological advancement in Galileo’s time. While, at the same time, Wright’s injection of familiar quotes from contemporary politics like “drain the swap” and “speak truth to power” turn these historical events into any media news cycle, reversing the relationship between past and present and eliminating the impact. Seeing historical figures mimic our current leaders simply doesn’t have the same effect as hearing the famous or infamous words of the past recontexualised today because the recognition doesn’t ring without hindsight.
Friels is perhaps a more collected representation of Galileo than typical with a measured control over his students and colleagues and an obstinate belief in the truth of reason. The most powerful conversation of the production, the one that reverberates out with the most clarity, sees Galileo debating the wisdom of sharing his findings with his friend and colleague (Damien Ryan). Ryan is earnest and rightfully cautious about the possibility of the general public eschewing religious belief for proven science. These two spheres, religion and science, so often held in opposition come to represent the paradox of the human mind where belief in the unknowable can be more powerful than evidential truth.
Throughout the production, Ryan delivered believable, compelling characterisations with a fitting gravitas. Particularly in conversation with Peter Carroll as Pope and Bishop, these two men carried the weight of the Church’s formidable political power well and grounded the historical context of the Roman Inquisition. Vaishnavi Suryaprakash as Galileo’s student Andrea countered this with a refreshing vivacity and fierce spirit that was charming if unreasonable. In another moment, Rajan Velu as monk turned physics student presents a gentle and genuinely troubled mind who captures a softer side of human interest.
In this Life of Galileo made modern, there’s a certain something left behind: the grandeur and gravity of a crucial turning point for the fate of science and faith in Europe. Flack’s recreation, while now cool and approachable, loses a touch of the revolutionary and the unsettlingly recognisable sight of history turning back on itself.
Life of Galileo is running at Belvoir from August 3rd – 15th