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Photo by Brett Boardman

Life of Gallileo

Belvoir Theatre present LIFE OF GALILEO, by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Tom Wright, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 3rd August - 15 September, 2019

LIFE OF GALILEO, by Bertolt Brecht has been adapted by Tom Wright for this present Belvoir Theatre production. My introduction to the Galileo play was through the British translation into English by John Willlett. It was this that I first read as an acting student years ago, and re-read before seeing this production, along with the translation that Brecht had worked with the actor Charles Laughton that premiered in Los Angeles in 1947. Brecht had exiled himself from Nazi Germany with the rise to power of Adolph Hitler, and while in Switzerland began working on this play between 1937-39, it having its premiere in Zurich, in 1943. He moved further to the United States ending in Los Angeles during the war.

The new adaptation by Mr Wright was a fairly interesting one in comparison and had, I thought, a respectful approach that con-temporised the play without straining to making too obvious an Australianising that, for me, blighted his work on the Sydney Theatre Company production of THE RESISITABLE RISE OF ARTURO UI last year.

The Director, Eamon Flack in his program notes tells us:

… why the LIFE OF GALILEO is such a formidable work: it knows what it is talking about, it knows about exile and cunning; it knows about truth and lies; it knows about compromise and ideology; it knows about the beauty and exhilaration of thought; it knows about the corruptibility of human knowledge; and it knows about the species’ unique capacity for destruction. …

Colin Friels tackles the formidable challenge of Galileo in this production and has a clear-eyed handle on the arguments and compromises of his man, and manages to manoeuvre us, the audience, through the intellectual journey with clarity and alacrity. Mr Friels manages to keep us all engaged with the playwright’s interests and he provokes a thought stimulation from us leavened with wit and a basic humanity that appears to be thrilled and humbled by thinking that lead to discoveries, that is pained by the compromises and feints that one may have to make to be able to continue to contribute to the progress of man, despite the tidal force intent from the authorities that ignores proof so as to be able to maintain the status quo and hold onto power.

The other eight actors play multiple roles, and in this production modishly shift gender – at least from male character for female inhabitation (none the other way round): Laura McDonald, Peter Carroll, Miranda Parker, Damien Ryan, Damien Strouthos, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Sonia Todd and Rajan Velu. Usually the play is cast with eighteen actors and possibly, extras, to tell this story in the Brechtian Epic Theatre style. With this minimalist production there is a general competency of clarity with arresting work from all, but especially from Ms Todd, in a gender swap role as the Vice Chancellor; Mr Strouthos, as Ludovico; and Peter Carroll in a number of scene stealing opportunities with a special relish in the famous dressing of the Pope sequence (a debt seems to be owed to the 2016-17 television series THE YOUNG POPE, Created and Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, starring Jude Law, courtesy of the input in this Belvoir instance, by choreographer, Kate Champion and the music scoring by Jethro Woodward.)

Belvoir has brought back the theatre in the round mode that we saw earlier in the year with the EVERY BRILLIANT THING play production, Designed, in this case, by Zoe Atkinson. Ms Atkinson also Designed the post-modernist contemporary mix of costume for the actors. In adopting this mode the production is minimised and feels as if it were a kind of Reader’s Digest ‘lesson’, lacking the scale and impact of an Epic Power and energy, that one may see in the Berliner Ensemble Theatre, for instance.

(In a few weekends time I am attending a concert given by The Metropolitan Orchestra of Mahler’s enormous Fifth Symphony with eighty musicians. Watching this production of LIFE OF GALILEO is a bit like what I would imagine the effect would be if the orchestra in the Eugene Goossens Hall were reduced to thirty instruments: a diminishment in power!)

The content of Brecht’s LIFE OF GALILEO is powerful in its current relevancy and in this production elucidated with marvellous skill by Colin Friels who gives an intellectual clarity to the density of thought and situation of the play. Two reasons to see the production, perhaps.