Bertolt Brecht's The Life of Galileo explores the life of the founder of modern science and the conflict between reason and faith. The audience is led through the key events and decisions of the philosopher/scientist's decades-long battles with the Roman Catholic Church, examining the ordeal Galileo was forced to undergo at the hands of the Inquisition as he pitted the fruits of his research and observation in 17 th century Padua and Florence against the supreme authority of Rome. It poses powerful questions that resonate today about the social responsibility of the scientist, and also wider issues: what are the repercussions of a fundamental paradigm shift in fundamental belief? In the late Renaissance, it was belief about the cosmos; in the 19th century, concerning evolution; today perhaps the implications of cloning or the mapping of the human genome. Does knowledge grant power, or can it lead, as it did in the case of Galileo, to the heightening of anxiety and even threat to life?
The opening scene in Galileo's solidly-furnished study in Padua in 1609 showed us the great man, in a white linen shirt and brown pantaloons, discoursing and also teaching his young protégé, Andrea Sarti (excellently played by the strong-voiced nine-year-old Julius Ford Clough). He advocates the heretical view that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than standing motionless at the centre of all creation. Director Colin Macnee's production immediately establishes its credentials of engagement here: Galileo's desk and papers are thrust forward at us on the very edge of the stage, David Long's lighting - here and throughout - is a very effective chiaroscuro contrast of brilliance and shadow, and the eye is simultaneously caught by the big-screen video backing in lieu of physical sets. Liliana Resende's terrific designs fix on drawing-board architectural outlines on the one hand and on our solar system on the other; notably on Jupiter (sometimes accompanied by bursts of Gustav Holst's The Planets suite) and a startling representation of the sun in all its glory. Rebecca Jones' costumes were also a delight of authenticity in colour and texture; clearly the fruit of a great deal of work and research.
This bold and challenging choice of material by OTG is reflected in the casting by Colin Macnee of 23 actors and the requirement for an equally numerous production team; very demanding by any standards and paradoxically beyond the financial reach of most professional theatre bar the top echelon. If in the early couple of scenes the cast seemed a touch uncertain about their lines and their cues, and their movement was inclined to be a bit static, these things can be put down to first night hesitancy since the fluidity improved substantially later.
The part of Galileo is a huge and exhausting one by any standards, the actor being on stage for almost all of the three hours (inc. interval) running time, and remaining the focal point even when temporarily absent. Brecht of course makes of Galileo the mouthpiece for the whole range of his ideas – bringing in speeches about truth versus dogma, on the ethics of dissent and the authoritarian control of ideas, and also a more unexpected debate about how doubt, hailed by Galileo as the precursor of knowledge, can be a sword that cuts both ways.
The dramatist's famous verfremdungseffek [alienation effect] theory wherein he's desiring his audience to think rather than feel is a very difficult concept for any production to get to grips with. I guess it was to this end that Richard Readshaw and his director largely avoided dramatic effects, preferring a display of quiet reason rather than kicking the cat, and also keeping a display of cynicism within bounds when the scientist was confronted by obscurantism at every turn. If Readshaw's pacing of his very long, musing soliloquy in the penultimate scene lacked variation in tempo, I suspect that Brecht would have approved of his analytical response to the script as though he were in a debating chamber. This was an admirable lead performance, demonstrating stamina and control.
Among the other actors who caught my eye were Paul Clifford, bringing humanity to the role of Cardinal Bellarmin, Tim Eyres as a sympathetic Father Clavius, the Curia's principal scientist, and particularly Tobias Forbes, injecting energy in both his movement and his intellectual questing, plus a notably clear-voice, to the role of the adult Andrea Sarti: student, right-hand man and latterly accuser of Galileo.
This is not an action-filled, showy drama, but a slow-burning and thoughtful one. It has plenty to say as a vital antidote to the current fashion for promoting the notion that ideology, and specifically right-wing demagoguery, should enjoy some sort of primacy over the role of the specialist in conducting evidence-based enquiry. In consequence audiences this week will be debt to the OTG for its intelligent realization of this timely material.