Galileo, our contemporary

A Life of Galileo, Swan Theatre Stratford, 16 March 2013

Galileo’s whiteboard, laser pointer and adjustable desk lamp stood before a back wall composed of an oversized sheet of bright blue graph paper. Dot matrix signboards indicated the date and location of scenes. Clerks brandished voice recorders.

Thanks to these visual cues and the infectious enthusiasm with which Galileo (Ian McDiarmid) pursued his seventeenth century battle with authority, the production succeeded in transforming historical events into an incredibly modern-feeling escapade.

At the centre stood the fun-loving scientist whose earthy appetites and effervescent joy in his work made him an appealing figure. A tangible excitement spilled off the stage when he told a companion that he had discovered what constituted the Milky Way, an excitement capable of inspiring the audience to sally forth and find new worlds of their own.

The scene in which the young Cosimo de Medici (Chris Lew Kum Hoi), circling the stage on a spangly kick scooter, was presented with an opportunity to view the stars named in his honour, brought out the comic stupidity of the established academic order.

Asked to view the stars (the moons of Jupiter) through the telescope, the doubters could only dispute whether the alleged objects orbiting Jupiter were really necessary. When urged to use their eyes, the response was that they could use them to read the thoughts of Aristotle, a long-dead Greek whose untested ideas dominated official astronomy.

The flip side to this light-heartedness was the way in which a firm contrast was drawn between Galileo’s trust in the people and their ability to discern right from wrong, and the opposing viewpoint, in which cynicism about ordinary people’s collective intellect became a justification for political conservatism. If people are basically ignorant cattle, then they require herding and paternal government by their betters.

There were two fine and chillingly complementary performances by Martin Turner, first as Galileo’s friend Sagredo, who warned him about the threat of the Inquisition, and then as the Cardinal Inquisitor himself.

But there was always something relentlessly upbeat about Galileo so that his sly appropriation of the Dutch telescope as his own invention was something to smile at rather than a fatal error that would eventually undermine his reputation.

This production added comedy by making the university rector into a woman (Nia Gwynne) with a giddy crush on Galileo when he was popular, but who hid herself behind a clipboard and hurried away from him once he had fallen foul of the authorities.

The Old Cardinal (Patrick Romer) who insisted that the earth he stood on did not move, stamped his feet as he walked, shifting into a distinctive fascistic goose step, while behind him Christopher Clavius (Paul Hamilton) was in the process of verifying the truth of Galileo’s observations.

For some reason the translation prepared by Mark Ravenhill from a literal translation by Deborah Gearing removed perhaps the funniest joke in the play. During the Medici Stars scene, someone remarked that the new telescope allows people to see all the hairs on the great bear, to which lens grinder Federzoni, here a donkey-jacketed working man (Paul Hamilton again), usually quips back “and all sorts of things on the bull!” But this remark was puzzlingly (pizzlingly?) absent.

And this being the RSC, it was difficult not to notice that the text contained an illusion to the world being a stage on which ordinary people were actors, as well as Galileo’s rhetorical statement “That is the question”.

Galileo’s insistence that no one could watch a stone fall to the ground and say it had fallen upwards had its impact greatly increased by having Galileo sat on top of a tall ladder tower, enabling him to drop the stone from a great height onto the ground, rather than letting it fall a few feet from his side, as the moment is often staged.

It was only by the interval when his daughter Virginia (Jodie McNee) interrupted his sun spot experiments wearing her wedding dress to complain that her fiancé, disturbed by Galileo’s continuing defiant enquiries, had left her, that there was a real sense of events taking a turn for the worse. Galileo’s response to the implosion of his daughter’s happiness was a blunt reference back to his ongoing work “I must know the truth”.

The Inquisition took Galileo into its grasp, forcing his recantation of his Copernican theories and confining him to a life of guarded seclusion. Galileo might have acted old and infirm, but the memories of his former activism were too firmly entrenched and too intrinsically appealing for his defeat to seem real.

This meant that the hopeful ending, in which his friend Andrea (Matthew Aubrey) smuggled a copy of his latest work out of the country to spark flames of research elsewhere, felt unnecessary because Galileo had been surrounded all along by the kind of modern technology made possible by his model of science.

His ultimate victory had been hidden in plain sight all along.

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