Life of Galileo – Colin Friels and the power to see. (Theatre Review)

Life of Galileo

Belvoir Theatre

3 August to 15 September. You can grab your tickets here. 

Images: Brett Boardman

For Director Eamon Flack, Writer Tom Wright (who adapts this production from the Bertolt Brecht original) and actor Colin Friels, the play Life of Galileo makes a claim for contemporary relevance by exemplifying Galileo as man striving for facts. These facts are posited against ‘truths’ which strikes a particular chord for theatre goers today who live amid a torrent of misinformation over a bed of post-modern disruption and interrogation of the authority of knowledge. Bertolt Brecht wanted to use theatre as a positive critique of society, so it makes sense to apply one of his great plays to a contemporary society if that society is grappling with similar problems. However, for some of us who sit in the audience, the question of ‘Science v’s Religion’ occurs as antiquated, tiresome and surrounded in petulance. Yet, something in the old arguments resonates still, and strikes a chord within us. It is this question I found evoked in the most exciting way by this production currently showing Belvoir, particularly inside a beautiful scene between Galileo (Colin Friels) and one of his acolytes cogently performed by Rajan Velu. Rajan Velu evokes with all the might of religious fervor the passion of the young priest in search of truth who puts to Galileo the plight of the poor including the relief and dignity they find in belief. Galileo rightly responds with the question ‘But why are they hungry?’ This seems at odds with the questions the play grapples with: belief as opposed to faith. But it strikes at the heart of the Kantian perspective Brecht sought to reveal that comes alive in Eamon Flack’s direction of Colin Friels. It is in this question that we find the most exciting provocations called forth by Life of Galileo currently showing at Belvoir.

When Galileo asks the young priest ‘Why are they hungry,’ he strikes at the chord of all ideologies existant that have never eradicated poverty. We are all familiar with Gandhi’s statement that poverty is the worst form of violence. It can be argued there are two distinct forms of violence, subjective and objective. Subjective violence is an act of brutality, such as a murder or a rape. Objective violence cannot be viewed from the same standpoint. Subjective violence takes place as a rupture, a break away from a peaceful, normal state of things. However, objective violence is the violence that is held in place by a description of the normal. “Objective violence is invisible since it sustains the very zero-level standard against which we perceive something as subjectively violent.”[1] The horror for us today lies in this recognition as the poor as receivers of a violent action against them and the church as the holy protectors of its perpetrators. Colin Friels masterly rendering of Galileo transports the scientist through time, away from a post generational veneration, and sets him (protestations intact) in a current day, when we no longer believe in genius nor do we imagine great men must be heroes. This performance calls forth the man, the very human man, who understood that any ideology, belief or faith that allowed poverty to exist was a complete and utter failure. It is with this crystalline observation (what the character played by Colin Friels might call ‘Seeing’) we are gifted a flawless yardstick against which we can measure all ideologies that seek to impose their ideals.

By this standard, any ideology imposing itself is inherently flawed, because none have been able to resolve the violence of poverty. It is in Colin Friels performance, pared down, simplistic, verbose, generous and irreversibly human, that we find the manifestation of Galileo’s point. We see this equally in the frail body of Peter Carroll (who is a stand out in this performance) as it it transformed into power by the Papal Robes a-la The Emperors new clothes, and in Eamon Flack’s decision to turn the theatre into the round so that we are educated and educators at once. The power of simply styled Australian accents calls forth more than the modern day; it transforms Galileo’s clarion call into the cry of a befuddled and stubborn man. The kind we may know.

Eamon Flack has drawn a strong cast together to add dignity and strength to the Brecht play, but it is Colin Friels who claims the stage and successfully carries the weight of the production on his capable shoulders. At several times, he finds himself as Galileo in the centre of the round stage, cast and audience staring inward. This satellite structuring by Eamon Flack coupled with the almighty honesty of the performance, refute the centre of the universe theory for stars, planets, moons and people. Colin Friels rejects hero status and its associated charismas for the passionate efforts of the ordinary clever man who worked hard for his knowledge. This is a beautiful performance that is worth the price of the ticket alone.

This production of Life of Galileo is delicate and gentle, but like the message of the play, it is laid bare for all to see should they choose to look.  It contains a message that should change the lives of all of us, and is presented in a way that can. While true to Bertolt Brecht’s vision for theatre, it is a modest yet robust presentation of ideas that are invigorated for our consumption. The choice to see is up to us, and this is as true for theatre as it is for science.

[1] Slavoj Zizek On Violence.