The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui – August 2013

Experience: 8/10

Written by Bertolt Brecht, translated by George Tabori and revised by Alistair Beaton

Directed by Jonathan Church

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 22nd August 2013

Having seen this last year, we were keen to see how it had changed in revival. With most of the original cast back in harness, rehearsals were presumably more straightforward, but there were a few new actors to add in to the mix who could add a fresh take – what would we see tonight?

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A Life Of Galileo – February 2013

Preview

Experience 5/10

By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Mark Ravenhill

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 6th February 2013

Given the standard of the other two productions in this mini-season, I was a little disappointed to find I didn’t enjoy this third production as much as I’d hoped. There were a number of reasons for this, and since they’re still only halfway to press night it would be unfair to judge the entire run on one early performance. Steve would have rated tonight’s effort slightly higher than I did (6/10) so we were in broad agreement, and we both expect this rating to improve the next time. [Sadly we missed a later performance, due to car trouble. 25/3/13]

We started the evening with a director’s talk. This can be a two-edged sword, as hearing about the production before we see it can spoil our enjoyment or even warp our expectations so much that we have to work hard to get anything at all out of the performance. We intend to see previews before the talks in future, if we can, and we’ll see how that turns out.

For tonight, Paul Allen was in conversation with Roxana Silbert, and we learned plenty about the production and even Roxana’s family background. She had wanted to do this play for many years; with a father and brother who were and are physicists, she grew up in a house where Newton, Galileo and Einstein were part of their regular table talk. Only scoring 9% in her O-level physics, she admitted to being ‘interested, but not able’ in the subject of science. Her brother wrote some program notes for this production (she freely confessed the nepotism) and they had the services of Stuart Clark (scientist and science blogger on The Guardian) to take them through the scientific aspects of the play so that the actors would have enough of an understanding for their parts.

This new translation/adaptation by Mark Ravenhill was an attempt to freshen the play up, although with the Brecht estate being very protective of his work, they had to get approval for all aspects of the production. Fortunately, Galileo is the least Brechtian of Brecht’s plays, and since it was written over a long time span and reflected changes in Brecht’s own attitudes, there are a number of versions which can be blended together for each new interpretation. This production is mercifully short (about two and a half hours) and some of the scene choices reflect the film script rather than the play. (Brecht moved from an absolutist view of rationality and science via Hiroshima to an understanding that scientific work must be tempered with humanity.)

The nature of the material meant that it was difficult to be ‘authentic’ with the costumes or setting. Brecht used Galileo to tell the story of not just Renaissance science but some later discoveries as well, e.g. gravity, so some flexibility was needed in the choice of costumes. When Galileo is demonstrating his telescope to the Venetian senators, for example, the contrast between Galileo’s advanced understanding of the universe and the outdated attitudes of the establishment figures is apparently underscored by having Galileo in modern dress and the others in ruffs etc.

Having an established ensemble to work with had both good and bad points. On the one hand, the actors are working very hard, having got two other productions up and running, plus the understudy work which we hardly ever see, so they’re pretty tired when they arrive for rehearsals with her. On the other hand, they’re already working well together and they’re more prepared to take risks. They’re also familiar with the performance space, so when she asked them to try something out, they would do it immediately, almost before she’d finished explaining it to them. Overall, she reckoned their ensemble experience took three weeks of initial learning off the rehearsal process.

Ian McDiarmid wasn’t cast because of his role in the Star Wars movies; Roxana had worked with him in a Howard Barker play before he was ‘famous’ (for the films). Ian had also played Galileo in another production of this play when he was in his twenties, and one aspect of that production was the use of a puppet to play the young Andrea in the opening scene. Roxana chose to use the same actor throughout as Andrea, rather than cast a young boy and a grown man separately, so that the audience would be able to engage more easily with the father figure/son relationship better. She also felt that this technique emphasised the importance of children in the play, through giving the audience that stronger connection.

Brecht’s theory of theatre inevitably got a mention, as did his tendency to confuse the issue by apparently ignoring his own precepts at every opportunity. Roxana has clearly studied Brecht’s writings on the subject, including one book which showed that his directing style wasn’t that different from any other director. Shortly after this discussion, the fire alarm went off and we all trooped out of the theatre. We were nearly at the end of the talk anyway, so with a short burst of applause in the gardens, we were free to find somewhere warm to huddle until the theatre opened up again, which happened pretty quickly.

The set was interesting. As Roxana mentioned during the pre-show chat, there was graph paper hanging down at the back in three broad strips, with the central one forward of the other two to provide a couple of entrances at the back. We also noticed some obvious markings on the stage – various rectangles of red tape – which fitted in with Brecht’s preference to show the innards of the theatrical machine at work. Someone had asked a question about the red ladders; these were step ladders on wheels of various sizes which were wheeled on and off as needed and which were usually positioned on one of the red rectangles. Not so obvious till the show started were the screens back and sides which showed the location and date of each scene, while other screens, hung vertically, also had information scrolling up or down them which was very hard to read. Some other furniture was used from time to time, all modern including plastic chairs, and as it turned out virtually all the costumes were modern with the occasional ruff or frill here and there. The religious uniforms, especially for the Pope, were timeless, so there was very little sense of a clash of time periods at all, sadly. In fact, with the modern setting I found Galileo’s opening speech made me think how outdated he was, as we now know so much more than they did in his time. I accept that he is one of giants on whose shoulders others stood, but as Galileo’s character himself points out, there is no book which can only be written by one person.

This was only a minor point though; my main concern was that I just couldn’t engage with any of these characters as people. Despite Roxana’s belief that Galileo was a fully rounded person, that didn’t come across in this performance for me, and I simply didn’t care about any of the other characters. The scenes were so bitty, and there seemed to be so much activity at the expense of storytelling that I was feeling bored and looking at my watch long before the first hour was up.

Part of the problem was the wonderful experience I had at the National’s production back in October 2006, with Simon Russell Beale playing Galileo. I do my best not to let past productions influence my experience of each new staging, and in this case I was surprised how much the earlier performance had imprinted itself on me. Those scenes were so much richer, the characters so much clearer, the arguments against the new science were put forward by people who absolutely believed what they were saying, and I felt deeply for so many of the characters. There was none of that tonight; the thrust of the play seemed to be almost entirely didactic, despite Mark Ravenhill cutting a lot of that stuff out.

I’ve often found, though, that when a reworking of a foreign play is significantly different from those I’ve seen before, I need a test drive to recalibrate my perceptions so that I can appreciate the newer version properly. I’m hoping that will be the case here, as we’ve another performance already booked later in the run. And they may well have tweaked things by then or simply bedded the production down so that it works better. We shall see.

I did find some of the later scenes more enjoyable, especially the last scene when Galileo gave Andrea a copy of his final scientific work to smuggle out of Italy and publish. I felt there was little tension in the scene where Galileo’s family and friends were waiting for the result of his meeting with the Inquisitor; apart from Virginia’s constant (and loud) reciting of prayers, nothing much seemed to be happening, and I was surprised when the others suddenly celebrated what they thought was Galileo’s resistance – that section probably went on too long.

I also noticed that there were very few laughs during the evening. Not that I expect this sort of play to be a light comedy, but even The Orphan and Boris, dark though much of those plays are, had plenty of lighter moments to keep us going to the end. It may have been the audience holding things back, of course; I spotted what looked like a school party on the far side (we sat on the left side of the stalls, front row) who seemed bored at times, and there were frequent outbursts of coughing throughout the performance which didn’t help.

Another difficulty was that, despite the use of microphones by various cast members to give us more information between scenes, I couldn’t make out a lot of what they said. The song which opened the second half was typical; I didn’t understand the verses, and I only just got the chorus of ‘Who doesn’t want to be his own master’ before the words were pinned up at the back. I suspect the clarity will improve with practice, and maybe the humour will improve as well.

One final point to make is that the performance seemed to be directed too much to the front, and from our side view we may have missed things which could have helped us engage more with the production. I’m not too downhearted though; this is an excellent ensemble, and with time I’m confident this production will be well worth seeing again, even if it’s not my favourite type of play.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui – July 2012

7/10

By Bertolt Brecht, translated by George Tabori

Script Consultant Alistair Beaton

Directed by Jonathan Church

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 17th July 2012

This is a marvellous production, which treats Brecht’s play with respect but also respects the audience’s desire for a good evening at the theatre. In fact, we got a great evening at the theatre, with both the comedic and dark aspects of the play brought out very strongly. The individual performances were all excellent, and the numbers staying behind for the post-show discussion had to be a record for the Minerva.

The set design was superb as well. Simon Higlett apparently did a great deal of research and included subtle references in the design which wouldn’t be obvious to most people, but which added to the overall effect. For example, there were tramlines representing the train tracks leading into Auschwitz, and the central arch at the back was in the same proportions as the entrance to that establishment (post-show info). The back wall was mainly brickwork, with the arch in the middle and metal stairs leading up to the side balconies. One of these had a ventilation fan on the go, with a light shining through it occasionally.

Under the arch were placed several settings. At the start it was a wall with a large poster of Scarface, the 1932 original version. Later it held the door to the gangster’s speakeasy, the fireplace of Dogborough’s country house, the public benches for the trial scene, the warehouse door for the execution of Roma, and the very large podium from which Ui makes his final speech. At other times it was left open, while furniture and other props were brought on and off as required. This took some time, and was a slightly negative aspect of the staging, as it caused a brief drop in the energy. But with such a strong production the energy soon picked up, and it wasn’t a significant problem.

The show began early, with some great music from the period – Brother Can You Spare A Dime? and We’re In The Money plus others – played and sung by members of the cast. Others sat around the speakeasy, and when the lights went down there was one final song before the master of ceremonies came on to give us the prologue. He used a standing microphone and spoke in rhyming couplets, introducing the main characters to us. As he did so, each character got up, acknowledged the introduction in his own way, and then left. The last person he mentioned was Arturo Ui himself, and this time Arturo entered from the back and marched straight through and off at the front. The reference to his similarity to Richard III was funny, and even more so for those of us who had seen Henry Goodman playing that very part.

When the prologue was finished, the room was cleared of furniture and the Cauliflower Trust started the ball rolling. Their incipient greed was obvious to see, and that was the driver for all that followed. A fake loan needed Dogborough’s backing, as he had such a glowing reputation for honesty and integrity that no one would investigate the details too closely. With a secret gift, the Trust overcame Dogborough’s steadfast refusal to assist in their con trick, and when Ui got to hear of this, he used the leverage to blackmail his way into power. Once there, the violence snowballed, but when Ui had advanced far enough to consider moving his protection racket into the neighbouring town of Cicero, the thugs he’d employed up to now became a hindrance and were removed, by tommy gun. Mind you, the guns were still in evidence when the ‘free and fair’ democratic Cicero elections were held, and amazingly enough there was a huge majority for the proposed Ui protection offer. With the Cauliflower Trust now supplying veg to both Chicago and Cicero, where would it all end?

There was a lot of humour in the early stages, getting less as the darker aspects took over in the second half. Even so, the absurd effect of gangsters talking about killing and arson in order to control vegetable distribution could still get us laughing well into the later scenes. The classic scene with the old actor teaching Arturo how to walk, stand and speak, was brilliant, with many of Hitler’s mannerisms appearing during the lesson. In addition to the very funny “Friends, Romans, countrymen”, this was a version of the play which used a great deal of Shakespearean references, with many familiar lines being mangled to fit the circumstances.

A lot of the time, though, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not, and some scenes were very uncomfortable to watch, especially the trial of the poor chap who was being blamed for the warehouse fire. Doped up to the eyeballs, he recovered for a brief spell, only to be dosed again by the tame court doctor and inevitably convicted by the judge. At the end of the first half, with Arturo on the rise, I wasn’t comfortable about applauding because it felt as if I would be applauding him, though I did want to acknowledge the actors. At the end however, the final speech, warning us to watch out for another Arturo, changed the tone completely and I was very happy to join in the enthusiastic response from the whole audience.

The post-show was incredibly well attended, by both cast and audience. The discussion covered the question of how much historical detail was necessary, with some finding the final part too obvious, but mostly the feeling was that not everyone would know the history, and in any case it was necessary to have that final speech because the play was intended as a warning. The information on what each scene represented wasn’t being shown during the play this time, although the details are in the program. The cast had found some parts of the play not easy to perform, but enjoyed the audience’s reactions to those difficult sections when our feelings were most challenged. The set was complimented, as was the music at the start, and while Henry Goodman’s performance was rightly lauded, we praised the whole cast for their performances as well. The Minerva itself was well liked by the cast (natch), and despite the many hands being raised we finally called a halt at 11:30 p.m.

I enjoyed this production more than I expected, Brecht not being a favourite of mine, but for all that I couldn’t rate it higher than 7 stars. Perhaps the pre-show talk we attended gave too much away; I intend to avoid these in future unless I’ve seen the play first. I did find it difficult to understand the dialogue for a while, as the accents were pretty strong, but I managed to tune in eventually and the rest of the show was fine. I’d certainly see another Brecht at Chichester if they’re going to be done this well.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Mother Courage And Her Children – December 2009

6/10

By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Tony Kushner

Directed by Deborah Warner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Saturday 5th December 2009

Straight off I was worried by the setup, especially the droning music in the background. Actually, it was more like the foreground. It was a really unpleasant sound, and, like the Therese Raquin earlier (Lyttelton, November 2006) I was considering leaving, only this time it would have been before the play began!

The set suggested some kind of protest situation, with an area roped off, cones and tape everywhere, and an industrial feel to the stage. When the play started, with the army recruiters meeting up to discuss business, the music stopped (thankfully), but the stage was the same. It was only at Mother Courage’s entrance that things started to liven up.

The gaping hole in the middle of the stage allowed a platform to be raised up, and on it was the travelling van Mother Courage used to peddle her wares. It was being pulled by two of her children, and once it had reached stage level, it went on a long journey round the place. All the while, Mother Courage (Fiona Shaw) was standing on top of the van, singing her song, wearing a peculiar costume which suggested both modern and old, and demonstrating her star status with a pair of sunglasses. The musicians may also have started to appear on stage around this time, as they frequently did. The band, led by Duke Special, did some excellent numbers throughout, ranging across styles, and making the production much more entertaining.

The sets changed frequently, always using the simplest techniques to create the locations. For an army tent, one canvas sheet would be lowered, with flaps for windows and doors. There were more elaborate pieces for the scene where Courage’s daughter warns the sleeping townsfolk, and often the van was the centre of it all. We were also treated to short readings by Gore Vidal of the bits between the scenes, telling us what was happening in the war, and what life was like for the people (usually dire). Brecht’s dry wit shone through, despite the horrors being related.

Fiona Shaw’s performance was excellent. She gave us a very clear picture of a woman who thought she was taking advantage of the war, but who was completely caught up in it, and eventually almost destroyed by it. Her family certainly was, as all three children died as a result of the war, and she was left alone, trying to keep going.  Her courage and brazen rapaciousness were both attractive and repellent, but it’s her greed for life that stands out most for me. Even after the beating that life gives her, she’s still battling on, perhaps stupidly, and perhaps bringing about her own downfall, but still keeping on. And clearly a punk, as Fiona’s dancing during one of the numbers indicated.

The other performances were also good, and I’m glad I stayed to watch it, but even so, it’s still Brecht, and there were lots of tedious patches which simply had to be endured. I also find it difficult to relate to these characters, which reduces my enjoyment, but for those who like this sort of thing, I suspect this was a very good production. It certainly got an enthusiastic response from the audience, and I’m glad to report that there were plenty of youngsters around us today.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Caucasian Chalk Circle – October 2009

3/10

By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Alistair Beaton

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Company: Shared Experience

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 21st October 2009

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. This wasn’t advertised as a schools matinee but that’s effectively what it was. The vast majority of the audience, at least in the stalls, were teenagers. This made the audience unbalanced and at times I felt completely out of touch with most of the people around me, which didn’t help me to feel involved with the production. For example, there’s a short scene where a senior soldier tells off a junior soldier because although he restrained and beat up the husband while the senior man raped the wife, he clearly didn’t enjoy it as a good soldier should. The kids screamed with laughter at every use of the word ‘dickhead’, they gasped and squirmed when the soldier very coarsely mentioned raping the wife, but the humour about the standards of the common soldier, which we found funny, evidently passed them by. They continued to laugh at every sexual innuendo, verbal or physical, and while I found some of it very funny myself I also felt at times that I was at a pantomime with a lot of little kids.

With all these distractions it took till nearly the end of the first half before I fully engaged with the story. The first section, the prologue, was very good, with an official type talking to villagers returning to their war-ravaged land, and trying to persuade them that the land should be given to those who could make the best use of it. Only in this case, he’s referring to consolidation of the small subsistence plots into big enough farms for the agri-businesses to move in and make a killing. The villagers aren’t sure what choice to make, so they decide to put on a play which deals with all of the issues being debated, and which will help them come to a conclusion. It’s called The Chalk Circle, and since they’re in the Caucasus, it becomes The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

The story then unfolds of a rich and important man, who has a wife and a baby son. He lives in a country which is at war, and seems to have been at war for a very long time, but he’s doing very nicely for himself all the same. One Easter Sunday, some rebels rebel, he’s captured and killed, and his widow runs for her life, leaving their baby son Michael behind. Actually, the widow had to be carried away kicking and screaming because she couldn’t bring along five large suitcases full of fancy clothes. She spent so much time trying to get her servants to pack properly, she nearly got caught herself. It’s clear where her priorities lie, and it’s not with the baby.

Realising that the rebels will want to kill the baby as well, all the other servants run off, leaving Grisha to look after him. They’ve told her to go as well, and abandon the baby, but she can’t. Eventually, when the soldiers arrive, and it’s clear the baby will be killed if it’s found, she runs off, taking little Michael with her. The rest of the first half is the story of how she evades capture, including the brutal bashing in of the rapist soldier’s head (she’s vicious when she’s protecting the baby), and an arranged marriage with a man from the next valley along from her brother. This poor chap is on his death bed when the extremely drunk Welsh priest ties the knot, and the wedding party is busily turning into funeral wake when news comes that the war is over, and that they won’t be taking away any more of the young men to be soldiers. You’ve never seen a dead man recover so fast. Oops. Now Grisha’s married to one man, in love with another (a soldier wooed and won her before the trouble broke out), and bringing up a baby that’s neither hers nor either of theirs.

So ended the first half. I started to enjoy myself from the wedding scene onward – the Welsh priest was such joy to watch – even though I’d spent most of the first half wondering if I should just cut my losses and go for a coffee while Steve finished the play for both of us. Talking it over with him afterwards, we decided it was mainly the audience that gave us the difficulties, and given that things improved in the second half that may well be true. The youngsters certainly seemed to have calmed down a lot, though we noticed a lot of gaps in the stalls where older audience members had been sitting. The story picked up again, too, though in a strange way. We followed Grisha and Michael a bit further, with Michael being played by a lovely little dark-skinned puppet – an example of colour-blind casting even in the puppetry department. We saw how unpleasant Grisha’s husband was (squeals from the youngsters as a man, naked but for a pair of underpants took to the stage), then she met her soldier again across the river, and just as she’s trying to reassure him that the baby isn’t hers, she has to claim it is to stop the soldiers taking it. But they do, nevertheless.

Now the play switches back to that Easter Sunday two years ago when the rebels struck and Grisha had to take Michael away. Only this time, we’re going to hear how one man became their judge. He’s a local scoundrel, an intellectual who can’t be bothered doing a proper job so he poaches rabbits and suchlike instead. He helps the Grand Duke to escape, mainly because he didn’t like the policeman he could have handed him over to. When he’s brought in for poaching, he makes an impassioned speech to the soldiers, assuming this is a popular uprising on behalf of the working man. Turns out it was actually a coup by the fat prince (yes, that’s what it says in the program) to take power, and now he wants to get his son or nephew voted in as the new judge. The soldiers, for all he paid them to kill the revolting peasants, reckon he’s only giving them a vote because he’s not yet securely in power. So they decide to take advantage of the situation and hold auditions for the post of judge. The scoundrel plays the part of the Grand Duke for the purposes of a mock trial, and his impersonation is so good it gets all the soldiers laughing (and us). He then speaks in the Grand Duke’s defence, making all the political points Brecht wanted – the aristocracy don’t take any of the risks themselves, they send other people’s sons off to fight while making fat profits from their military contracts, they don’t even supply a lot of the equipment they’re being paid for, etc., etc., all too depressingly familiar from current events. The soldiers boot out the fat prince’s relative, and elect the scoundrel instead; at least when he takes bribes from the rich he helps the poor with the money and his judicial decisions.

But two years go by, and now the war is over the Grand Duke and Michael’s mother are both returning to claim what’s theirs. There’s a long wrangle over who should have the baby, with two lawyers arguing on the biological mother’s side. One of them lays on the sentiment with a trowel, only to be completely undercut by the other one pointing out that she needs Michael as his father’s son and heir to allow her to gain control of her dead husband’s money and land. Finally the judge opts for the chalk circle test. A chalk circle is drawn on the ground, the puppet is put in the middle with each ‘mother’ holding a hand, and the winner is the one who can pull the baby out of the circle. They have two goes at it, as Grisha complains that she didn’t have a proper grip the first time, but both times she lets the child go so as not to hurt him. I sobbed. (The audience laughed.) Naturally the judge awarded Grisha custody of Michael, and for good measure, ‘mistakenly’ authorises her divorce from her husband, so that she can marry her soldier (instead of allowing an old couple to divorce, who been out of love with each other since they met). I would have sobbed some more, but I’d run out of tissue and the young folk were groaning and ‘eugh’ing at the loving reunion between Grisha and her true love.

So, with a final moral from the judge, who’d returned to being the singing narrator again, about how everything should be given to those who can look after it best, including the land, we were done. Thankfully.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Life Of Galileo – October 2006

Experience: 10/10

By Bertolt Brecht, in a version by David Hare

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 4th October 2006

This was excellent. It was lovely to see Simon Russell Beale again. I’ve missed many of his performances, for various reasons, and it was good to see he’s still as talented as before. He commands the stage, taking full advantage of the scope this part gives him. Even when he shows us Galileo’s unkindness towards his daughter, we can at least understand some of his reasons. He’s not a monster so much as a man obsessed.

The play covers a range of issues, but the central conflict is between science and dogma. The portrayal of the Catholic Church is refreshingly neutral, with church officials ranging from extreme dogmatists to enlightened thinkers, and it was good to see the niceties of the Church’s concerns put across. It was OK to talk about the Earth going round the Sun as a hypothetical mathematical concept, so long as it was said in Latin so the ordinary folk couldn’t get wind of it. In other words, don’t rock the boat, or we’ll throw you overboard! The overweening concern of those in power to stay in power was clear, although they tried to justify it by pretending their concern was only for those poor people who would lose the will to face such difficult lives without their absolute faith in God, as propounded by the Church. There were some lovely nuances through the play – I particularly liked the subtle innuendo of the Cardinal inquisitor (Oliver Ford Davies – another excellent performance) as he worked on Galileo’s daughter to recruit her as a spy, via her confessor. Although he could just have been warning her that anything they did would get back to him, so watch your step.

There were plenty of characters representing concerned friends, who wanted to support Galileo’s work, but who feared for his safety and that of his daughter, and others who supported him and wanted him to challenge the establishment and damn the consequences. Some of these were very disappointed, even angry, when they realised he had recanted his views, and I realised how much we human beings invest in our images of other people, how much we expect them to be perfect or heroic for us, rather than taking responsibility for our own lives and accepting others’ human frailties. I also saw how much we do this to God as well. So many people in this play saw no alternative to the Earth-centred, God created view of the world that would still allow God to exist as God. If not the still Earth at the centre, then chaos. Weird, given our greater knowledge now. Still, reason did not completely win out. The effects of Galileo’s choices left his daughter without a husband, so the human cost also had to be considered.

At one point I almost shouted out to contradict the Senior Cardinal, one of the pompous opponents of Galileo’s work. His view was that God would not have sent His only son to some little backwater of a planet on the edge of the universe. I felt like pointing out that He allowed His son to be born in a manger, so there! Obviously, this play got to me more than I realised, but I like that.

All the performances were excellent. The carnival scene reminded both of us of Cabaret, and I loved the astronomical images projected onto the back screen. The set was on a revolve, with the grid of an observatory dome at the back, not moving, three sets of French windows in bay formation at the front, or rotated to the back, and various doorways and walls with windows which could be moved around to form all sorts of acting spaces. Costumes were modern dress, and this worked well for me.

Some of the fun moments: Galileo is visited by a Dutch student looking for tuition, who tells him of the telescope people inHollandare using. Galileo grasps the idea immediately, sends out for some lenses, and pinches the idea in order to get a higher salary from the Venetians. The Dutch student’s main complaint is that he’s coloured the tube red. Then the fun begins. When the young Duke of Florence, Cosimo de Medici, comes to check out the telescope with his entourage, we get to see some of the ridiculous objections people had to Galileo’s discoveries. The mathematician objects to looking through the telescope, because logic dictates that if the agreed view of the solar system held that there were no objects orbiting bodies other than the Earth, then the telescope must be doing something wrong if it shows such things. The philosopher objected because he believed Aristotle to be correct, therefore the telescope must be wrong. (I’m getting the impression that far from being an important early scientist, Aristotle was a bit of a road block on the path to discovery.) When challenged to believe the evidence of his own eyes, he retorted that he did believe their evidence, when reading Aristotle! This nonsense was very entertaining, and although it has some echoes today, I found it more interesting as an indication of how far we’ve come since then.

We also get to see the robing of a Pope, Urban VIII. This is a long-winded business. The poor chap has to wear so many layers, presumably all representing something significant to Catholics at that time, that he wouldn’t be able to use a toilet easily. This is also the scene where the Cardinal Inquisitor requests permission to torture Galileo to get him to recant. Given Galileo’s squeamish nature, he reckons he only needs to show him the instruments of torture to do the trick, and the Pope agrees to that. The recantation scene itself was masterfully done. We see Galileo’s supporters waiting outside – his daughter, his housekeeper’s son, Andreas, whom Galileo introduced to science, the monk who ‘converted’ to Galileo’s views, and his lens-grinder. His daughter was praying for him, presumably so that he would recant. The others were bolstering their confidence by assuring each other that he wouldn’t. As the news broke, and the declaration is being read out, they crumble, none more so than Andreas, who rushes to attack Galileo when he appears. We actually see Galileo approaching first, through the windows, and he hesitates, obviously aware how his choice will have upset his friends. My thoughts about imposing expectations of heroism on others are above.

The masked ball was good, too. Again, the modern dress worked fine, and they were just skimpy masks rather than huge ones, but it got the effect across very well.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me