[Use Science Wisely]
The scene is 17th century Italy. Legendary astronomer Galileo Galilei is unsatisfied with what he has achieved in his life so far, and fixated on one subject in particular: the movement of the earth around the sun. Yet as Galileo tries fervently to share his discoveries with the world, it’s clear that there’s a big, black hole in his theory of the heavens, one that could consume him if he’s not careful: If Earth isn’t the centre of the universe, what does that mean for God’s most perfect creation — us? Directed by Colin McColl, this well-mounted production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo is a piercing and timely interrogation of truth, faith, and the place of science.
Though it changes as we follow Galileo (Michael Hurst) from his disordered study to the lavish courts of Florence and Rome, Sean Coyle’s production design is largely characterised by a simplicity that lets the themes of the play shine through the dialogue and performances. The functional set of what appear to be large shipping containers form a deliberately drab contrast to the bold ideas Galileo impresses on his students. The containers allow for the creation of different levels onstage, a technique that perhaps could have been utilised more for its potential to convey the stark difference between Galileo’s thinking and that of those around him. While Galileo is up high at the peak of his research, wanting to spread knowledge across the world, others like the Vice-Chancellor of the University are only interested in the monetary value of his inventions. More pressingly, the Church wants to stamp out his ideas altogether, condemning them as heretical.
These varying perspectives are embodied by an ensemble of characters, and it’s nice to see newer faces alongside more experienced names in New Zealand theatre. Michael Hurst is expectedly strong as the stubborn and passionate Galileo, with Rima Te Wiata (Cardinal Barberini/Mathematician/Pope) and Hera Dunleavy (as the Grand Inquisitor especially) also giving solid performances. Ravikanth Gurunathan brings an endearing liveliness to Andrea Sarti, Galileo’s keenest pupil, who visits him as a more mature young man at the end of the play. Like Federzoni (Taungaroa Emile) and “The Little Monk” Fulgenzio (Bryony Skillington), Andrea is hungry for Galileo’s ideas, unlike the hilariously pompous scholars and religious figures determined to cling onto old-fashioned beliefs.
His sceptics are terrified of change, but as Galileo states in the first scene, there’s no escaping these unstable times: “Once there was belief, now there’s doubt.” The theme of people in power refusing to look at the facts has obvious resonance today, whether we have climate change or Covid-19 on the mind. The play’s commentary on the value and uses of academia is just as relevant. Throughout, we feel the presence of elitist institutions intent on gatekeeping knowledge to ensure it doesn’t reach the masses. In addition to writing not in Latin but the vernacular Italian (“the language of fishwives and merchants”), Galileo teaches pupils from the lower classes, who are sneered at by the rich. Elizabeth Whiting’s costume design represents this class and education division, with the almost over-the-top reds and golds donned by characters like the Pope contrasting with the earthier tones worn by the ordinary folk.
David Hare’s translation of Brecht’s classic text is brought skillfully to life in ATC’s production, with its themes of fighting to defend the truth standing out as powerfully as ever. The audience is left with plenty of food for thought, though some messages should go without saying — like when the cast sings to us in the epilogue, “use science wisely or everybody dies.”
The Life of Galileo plays ASB Waterfront Theatre 22 June to 10 July, 2021.