After 18 years at the helm of the Auckland Theatre Company as artistic director, Colin McColl is stepping down at the end of 2021. It's a fact that is hard to ignore as you settle in for The Life of Galileo, his 61st and penultimate show for the ATC that feels like a swansong event – both to his tenure in charge and to the era he represents.
Galileo – an English translation by David Hare of Bertolt Brecht's 1943 work – is a pertinent choice. Over the course of several decades, Brecht's play tracks Galileo (played by Michael Hurst) as he discovers Jupiter's moons, and begins to push the theory that the sun, not Earth, is at the centre of the universe, directly in conflict with the Vatican's teachings and beliefs.
The themes around science versus faith, the responsibility scientists face, and fighting for truth all resonate powerfully after a year of Covid misinformation, and it's a testimony to Brecht's script that his story – set 400 years ago – is able to fit so easily into a 21st century environment.
It's a sprawling, epic play and you can see why McColl – probably one of the few directors who could handle something of this size – wanted to stage it. After several small scale productions, Galileo is easily the biggest production the ATC has staged for quite some time – with a 18-strong cast, and set designer Sean Boyle's imposing concrete arches and walls that dominate the stage and draw your eye as soon as you enter the theatre.
Hurst has a tricky job, featuring in almost every scene and having the most to chew on, but his restrained performance lasts the distance and slowly takes us through Galileo's struggles.
Ravikanth Gurunathan holds his own opposite Hurst as Galileo's pupil, Andrea, perhaps the only other character to truly grow and change through the play's decades-long story, convincingly moving from small child to impassioned student, and the two are captivating together in the show's climax.
The packed cast gives little room for others to stand out, but theatre regulars Rima Te Wiata and Hera Dunleavy make their mark in their brief but polar opposite dual roles that beautifully showcase their range.
There is little to fault when it comes to Galileo's performance or story – it's a solid, straightforward script, and McColl and the cast find ways to make every central performance stand out. Yet, with a two and a half hour runtime, there is a feeling of waiting for something big to happen that never fully arrives.
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It's a play that is all about strong characters and dialogue dripping in metaphor and message, and there is little in this staging – despite the best efforts from the designers and technicians – that diverts attention from the script.
Large rusted containers that serve as platforms and walls feels like an attempt at that, but they are not integrated as much as they could have been, becoming oversized props that are distractingly – and loudly – rearranged between each scene, undercutting any proceeding emotions.
I feel the split between audiences – those who are captivated by this solidly enjoyable, story-heavy staging, and those keen for something more experimental or innovative – will be a generational one, and it's a balance that ATC needs to find between pleasing their traditional audiences used to seeing classic plays performed and potential new demographics keen for 21st century imaginings.
Galileo proves a fitting tribute to McColl's talents as a director and the type of shows he's championed, but following works like The Haka Party Incident, it also makes a strong case for his successor to find stories that further pushes the boundaries.
What: The Life of Galileo
Where: ASB Waterfront Theatre until July 10