REVIEW: A Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht at Cambridge until Saturday (April 5)

12:01 03 April 2014

A Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht

Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, April 5.

YES, the earth moves. It’s such a pity that this play doesn’t.

This translation is dull. In two and a half hours of tedium, I noted one memorable line and one touch of wit. It’s a very long evening.

Galileo has made a discovery that really did shake the world. The earth moves round the sun and not the other way round. So our planet is not the centre of the universe. The church hierarchy is alarmed that the people, being told God has more than just one world to look at, might think he wasn’t paying them as much attention as Christianity says.

No wonder they must silence him. What a great theme for a drama. Brecht, who left Germany at the rise of the Nazis in 1933 only in the 1950s to find himself in Joseph McCarthy’s America, blacklisted by the studios and summoned to face the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, understood censorship and persecution. Yet this production has no threat or menace.

With a set that looks like a child’s bedroom from the 1980s – all red ladders and a backdrop of blue check fabric, it’s like the inquisition set in a branch of Habitat. The worst torture is the mannered acting, all the climbing up and down ladders with the actors then being wheeled about – the sudden reaching for microphones for announcements and a clichéd song and dance number that simple makes the daft thing longer. It has all the subtlety of 1970s agitprop.

Brecht was witty. In a 1953 poem about the East German Government he talks about the people having been said to have lost the confidence of the government. Would it not be easier, in that case, he says “for the Government to dissolve the people and elect another?”

There is no such irony in this translation. In the best loved dramas, there is internal debate. You think (for example) this time Macbeth won’t kill the king, he’s going to reason himself out of it. There is nothing like that here. The production moves, at a snail’s pace, along a straight and predictable line. It’s such a waste.

It’s difficult to care about any of the characters. Few have any depth. That said, amid the mess, you do believe that Ian McDiarmid’s excitable Galileo (more Dr Who than martyr – you can’t blame him for going over the top when the script keeps telling him to calm down) is a mathematician, you do believe he understands science and there is a very human portrait of a broken man at the end.

Patrick Romer gives a natural and fluid performance as the Cardinal Inquisitor. Chris Lew Kum Hoi brings lightness as the prince Cosimo de Medici and engaging arguments as Little Monk. However many of the other performances are self-conscious, possibly because, like the costumes, they are expected to straddle five centuries so it is difficult to find out who they are.

I thought the actors deserved better. Certainly, the audience did.

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