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Life of Galileo

"The wiry Friels brings intensity and earthy enthusiasm to the title role ..."

Audrey review: Belvoir's austere modern dress staging of Bertolt Brecht’s drama seldom reaches out beyond its circle.

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Category: Theatre
Company: Belvoir
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Life of Galileo

Date: 11 Aug 2019

Disturb the pattern of a parquet floor – or punch a hole through one as happens in this production – and even the sturdiest tessellation will, millimetre by millimetre, come apart.

There aren’t many images to take home from this austere modern dress staging of Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 drama adapted by Tom Wright and directed by Eamon Flack, but for me, this was the one that stuck.

Conceived in the late 1930s as the Nazis snuffed out free expression in Germany, Bertolt Brecht’s play is the story of the 16th Century Italian polymath Galileo Galilei (played here by Colin Friels), his determination to prove and promote Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system, and the Catholic Church’s efforts to ensure that he does not.

But in this version, the enemy of reason isn’t just the Mother Church. Wright highlights the modus operandi of the modern day higher education industry – specifically its subservience to stakeholders and its insistence that all research yield financial benefit.

Galileo’s research into ballistics has, for example, made him quite a name in the arms industry and his star charts will come in handy in the commercial world. It’s just a pity they’re ripping holes in the fabric of the Church’s preferred Universe at the same time.

Flack and designer Zoe Atkinson’s decision to stage the play in the round pays dividends in terms of intimacy and atmosphere. The nine-strong cast is uniformly good and all prove their versatility in multiple roles.

The wiry Friels brings intensity and earthy enthusiasm to the title role, an ideal counterpoint to the carefully weighted weasel words of the university VC (Sonia Todd) and the church hierarchy, embodied here by a slyly funny Peter Carroll as the Pope and Damien Ryan as the Cardinal Inquisitor. Vaishnavi Suryaprakash regularly enlivens the stage eyes as Andrea, the pupil who will eventually carry her teacher’s words to the world.

A mark of this production’s success – in the Brechtian sense, at least – is that all arguments are, in their moment, persuasive. We can appreciate the worldview of a Catholic enforcer as he lays out the possible consequences for a world in thrall to doubt and conscious of its insignificance.

We are drawn to sympathise with the Little Friar and his portrait of working people whose hopes lie in the next life. Galileo has to work hard to rock the status quo.

In-the-round presentation works well for Galileo but some, I imagine, will find this staging visually uninspired. Most, I think, would appreciate some more elasticity and dramatic tension across two hours of stage time. There are some gripping scenes – the Pope conjured before our eyes one piece of clothing at a time, for example, and Galileo’s conversation with the Little Friar – but too few of them reach out beyond the circle of play.

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