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