A Life of Galileo

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Bertolt Brecht

On the face of it, a story about the Catholic church's refusal to accept astronomical evidence that the earth revolved around the sun (heliocentrism,) might seem to be a strange subject for Bertolt Brecht to have written about it the early 1930s - and even less relevant in 2013.

Many would be tempted to smugly assert that this problem could only present itself in places where the shadows of obscurantism are yet to be illuminated by Enlightenment reasoning. Such views would be ill informed on all counts - as is clearly shown in this excellent Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of A Life of Galileo. It is based on a new translation by playwright Mark Ravenhill, who is well known for his "in yer face" plays such as Shopping and Fucking and Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat.

I remember being taught the conventional "great man" theory of science history at university. Men of the calibre of Copernicus and Galileo don't come along very often, so for long periods science stagnates through ignorant dark ages.

A much better explanation, beautifully argued by Brecht in this play, is that a contradiction arose between the pressure of stupefying religious certainty and the need for accurate navigation (dependent on scientific breakthroughs) for a rapidly developing economy based on the shipping trade. "This (clerical edict) is about peasants, not planets", Brecht has Galileo say. Then, in a scene reminiscent of a decadent Weimar music hall, nuns sing, "Who doesn't want to be their own master?" - expressing the fears raised by Galileo's scientific observations.

This impressively acted RSC production makes use of many traditional "Brechtian" devices. The audience is reminded that a political argument is taking place within a work of art. The play is performed in the round on a simple stage with minimal props that are placed in locations marked with red tape.

In an interesting 21st century take on Brecht's 1930s staging, hand-held placards are replaced by moving script on LED screens that give information on time, place and plot. This technology permits stage effects that would have been unavailable in the 1930s. At one point the words appear to cascade from the screens, suggestive of the collapse of ideological certainty.

At the end of the play Brecht leaves us with an image of a man compromised but never defeated, continuing to use his intellect to outwit his opponents. One is reminded of the wonderful remark Brecht addressed to the East German Stalinist regime, an invitation dripping with scorn: "Since the German people have lost the confidence of the government is it not time to dissolve the people and elect a new one?"

Galileo would have enjoyed that one. This production is an opportunity to see Brecht - traditional and yet new, powerful, engaging and entertaining.

A Life of Galileo is translated by Mark Ravenhill at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, until 30 March