Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
The Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht (translated by David Hare)
Auckland Theatre Company
Auckland Waterfront Theatre
Until July 10
Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo” links Galileo’s Italy of the 1600s with analysis of the looming menace of the Atomic Bomb in the playwright’s post war world. But the recent debates about the efficacy of the science around Covid 19 vaccines and the Climate Crisis debate make the work particularly relevant to contemporary thinking.
In Galileo’s time, new scientific ideas were emerging that challenged centuries of religious understanding of the world while in Brecht’s time, and more recently new political systems are also seen as repressing or denying new scientific ideas.
Many of the issues around the play relate to the Aristotelian view of the universe where the Sun and all other heavenly bodies revolved around the Eartha a world view the Church accepted and promoted. Others, such as Copernicus, had promoted the heliocentric model (of the Earth revolving around the Sun) that challenged Aristotle. In the eyes of the church this was heresy.
Science is the real subject of the play and Brecht’s principal aim was to show the behaviour of a man who comes to realise that he is ethically unequipped to deal with the consequences of his own genius. Galileo is a man who meets a test and fails.
Central to the play are Galileo’s scientific and polemical speeches delivered by Michael Hurst. He creates an irascible and determined thinker, a hedonist who is passionate in his search for the truth as much as his pursuit of earthly pleasures. His Galileo is steadfast in his belief in reason over faith but in the latter part of the play is wise or pragmatic in seeing the benefits of recanting his previously strongly held beliefs. This mirrors the Marxist Brecht’s own practical approach in managing to sidestep accusations of being a communist at the time of the McCarthy witch hunts in post war America.
Hurst is on stage for virtually the whole of the play and performs like a supernova exploding with intensity and power, filling the stage with his authority and presence. The long speeches which in lesser hands would be tedious are given a vividness and power which makes one aware of a Brecht’s confrontational form of theatre.
Hursts power of delivery unfortunately means that many of the minor character seem like dwarf stars, dimmed by his presence. Often these gender-blind characters are little more than stereotypes and are played as such without providing a sense of realism to the characters.
However, Ravikanth Gurunathan as Andrea Sarti developed the character from youthful enquirer to a mature scientist growing in stature and understanding with a fine sense engagement.
Roy Ward in his several roles brings a dignity and understanding to the characters while Rima Te Wiata has a few outstanding moments.
Cameron Rhodes handled his three roles well and was particularly forceful as the Venetian industrialist Vanni.
Hera Dunleavey as the Grand Inquisitor gave a compelling performance but her primary role as Mrs Sarti was less convincing.
The play has a rich text, filled with quotable lines about science, religion, truth and reason. Some of these are fleeting but have a density which is powerful. At one point the chancellor of Venice University says in reference to Galileo’s many useful commercial inventions that “The market brings you freedom” – an allusion to the “Arbeit macht frei” slogan on the entrance to Nazi concentration camps.
The stage is filled with three large metal shipping containers whose presence is never fully realised. They may well be the three Baskets/Vessels of Knowledge. The cast and crew spend a lot of the time moving these constructions around the stage and these erratic trajectories may be meant as outlining the strange movements of the planets which the Copernican system requires.
The one large container did serve a brilliant and dramatic purpose in becoming the Popes vestments room where Te Wiata is dressed, layer by layer, in rich robes as the new, supposedly more enlightened Pope.
Director Colin McColl is to be congratulated on bringing this important work to the stage. The verve and energy of the production and Michael Hurst stellar performance underscores the importance of Brecht’s work and his ideas which coalesce in the final slogan displayed at the end play – “Use Science Wisely or Everybody Dies”.