Belvoir’s fresh and captivating production transposes Brecht’s play to a contemporary setting that wrestles with climate change and our place in the universe.
Peter Carroll as Pope Urban VIII in Life of Galileo. Photo: Brett Boardman.
Brecht’s play asks big questions about the nature of truth and faith. First performed in 1943, it’s still extremely relevant today. What happens when a new scientific discovery challenges one of our fundamental beliefs? And what if that long-held belief is enmeshed in one of our society’s most significant bodies of power?
That is what happened to Galileo, whose findings clashed with the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. Now regarded as ‘the father of modern science’, he got into deep trouble with his contemporaries for his support of heliocentrism – the concept that the Earth revolves around the Sun – as the pervading belief of his era was that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Galileo was pressured by the Church to keep quiet, forced to recant his ‘heresies’ and sequestered in home arrest. Today we know far more about space and the solar system and yet the issues raised in the discussions about fear, faith and martyrdom, scientific proof, belief and deduction are still relevant.
Belvoir’s fast-paced production of Brecht’s Life of Galileo, directed by Eamon Flack and adapted by Tom Wright, is inspiring, fresh and captivating. It has been transposed to a contemporary Australian setting, complete with references to climate change, and utilises cross-gender casting for several roles that were originally male characters. The production is very simply staged in the round, giving an intimate feeling, with some props descending from the ceiling or being carried in. TV monitor screens display the title, date and location of the current scene.
Most of the small cast play multiple roles. Colin Friels is charismatic and inspiring in a bravura, virtuoso performance as Galileo. It is a very demanding role as he is onstage for almost the entire show. We see him as an inspiring university lecturer and a brilliant thinker but we also witness his fragility, vulnerability and flaws as he faces strife both professionally and in his private life.
Peter Carroll is excellent as a straight-laced committee member and almost steals the show as the wickedly naughty nightclub-dancing Cardinal Barberini, who rises to become Pope Urban VIII. The dressing of the Pope scene in Act 2, with His Holiness symbolically standing on a white cloth square, is fraught and tense. Carroll’s speech as one of the conservative committee members in Act 2 is eloquent but deceptive poetry.
Sonia Todd is tremendous as the deceitful Vice Chancellor and also has other roles as a security guard, committee member and others. Miranda Parker is fabulous as the Grand Duchess (Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici in Brecht’s original play) in a glittery silver pantsuit and fluoro pink boots, as well as in her other roles. Damien Ryan is warm and sympathetic as Galileo’s supportive friend Maculi, yet sinister, arrogant and chilling in his later role as the powerful, demanding yet blinkered Inquisitor. Laura McDonald as Virginia, Galileo’s daughter, is warm and supportive yet heartbroken when her engagement collapses, and Rajan Velu and Vishnavi Suryaprakesh are terrific as Galileo’s students.
The play makes us ask ourselves if we would hang on to our principles and integrity. It also asks us to consider our own personal insignificance while recognising how we humans as a whole can affect the planet – or can we?
4.5 stars out of 5 ★★★★☆
Life of Galileo
By Bertolt Brecht
Adapted by Tom Wright
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Ayeesha Ash, Peter Carroll, Colin Friels, Laura McDonald, Miranda Parker, Damien Ryan, Damien Strouthos, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Sonia Todd and Rajan Velu
Set and Costume Designer: Zoe Atkinson
Lighting Designer: Paul Jackson
Composer and Sound Designer: Jethro Woodward
3 August-15 September 2019
Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills NSW