Belvoir St, August 7
Ignorance is an avalanche; science a snow-plough trying to bulldoze through it to a less ignorant future. So it was in Galileo’s time (1564-1642), and so it is today. Some of the fruits of Galileo’s genius were temporarily stymied by Catholicism, which feared the rug being pulled from under it were the Earth not the centre of Creation, and, were there nowhere for God to be enthroned in an infinite universe.
Bertolt Brecht’s play champions the great astronomer, physicist, mathematician and (sometimes military) engineer, despite science’s role being scrutinised afresh in 1947 (when Brecht completed his English-language version) for hatching that king of killing machines, the atomic bomb. Ever fascinated by dialectics, Brecht also credibly presents the dilemma facing those whose Vatican bread might only remain thickly buttered while the status quo survived – a status quo that also spared their flock the shocking implications of unfettered doubt.
Brecht could not have foreseen the obvious parallels between the Church and contemporary climate science deniers, but he shrewdly foresaw that science would always be shovelling aside the comforting sludge of ignorance. The resultant play’s fascination lies in its almost homely insights into Galileo’s genius and into his abjuring his revolutionary astronomical discoveries before the Inquisition.
Implicit in the abjuration is that he is a man whose personal habits are as sensual as his scientific ones are rigorous. This is the first of many areas in which Eamon Flack’s production comes unstuck. Colin Friels plays a Galileo who, while amply passionate about seeking out truth, is more a lean, leathery warrior in the cause, than a thick-lipped man who enthusiastically overindulges in food and wine when not mounting and proving hypotheses. Friels’ Galileo seems one who would stoically go the stake for his beliefs, let alone face a spot of torture.
Flack has opted to have the text “adapted” by Tom Wright, so, in case we are a nudge slow to catch the contemporary implications, we have local colloquialisms and a “drain the swamp reference” among several anachronistic cheap laughs (rather than trusting the play’s native wit). Wright does insert some amusing witty gems of his own, including satirising the tertiary education culture, but really, all that was required was some culling of characters and cutting of lines.
Flack’s most inspired decision was to have designer Zoe Atkinson convert the theatre into the round. In a play partially about centres, satellites and orbits, such a staging has dizzying metaphorical implications, and could well be a more effective use of the Belvoir space, long-term.
Less inspired is both the building of the dramatic tension and the acting of the cast of nine. It is as if, with Friels not locating the epicentre of Galileo, the whole production has been thrown off kilter. The multitude of (now gender-blind) minor characters are reduced to being types, with the exception an exquisite moment after Peter Carroll has been dressed, layer by layer, in his robes as the new, supposedly more enlightened Pope. Once fully attired, he rotates before us, silently conveying a heartbreaking vulnerability; a bewilderment and an uncertain grandeur. Yet even this little glory has a drawback, in that it completely upstages Damien Ryan delivering the Cardinal Inquisitor’s pivotal speech (“Are we to establish human society on doubt and no longer on faith?”).
As Galileo says, “The truth doesn’t get invited in. It has to break down the door.” In this production it is merely politely knocking.
Until September 15.