THEATER REVIEW

By Laura Cappelle

Sept. 19, 2019

Another recently reopened theater, La Scala Paris, inaugurated its season with more conventional fare: a new production of Brecht’s “Life of Galileo” by Claudia Stavisky.

It serves as a star vehicle for an exceptional stage actor, Philippe Torreton, but he isn’t the only Galileo in town. In June, Eric Ruf staged an ornate version of the same play at the Comédie-Française, which will return at the end of this month.

The duplication doesn’t feel merely like a coincidence. The central conflicts in “Life of Galileo” — between science and religion, moral responsibility and personal comfort — speak to our moment. In the 17th-century astronomer, Brecht created a hero and an antihero at once. The character’s willingness to compromise and lie, whether to further his work or for fear of torture when the Catholic Church deems his theories unacceptable, is a reminder that factual evidence doesn’t always win the day.

Not that it makes the play an easy sell: Many scenes are static and heavy on dry scientific debate. Mr. Ruf’s production struggled to inject life into the proceedings, despite strong performances. The sumptuous sets and costumes by Christian Lacroix often felt like the raison d’être of the evening rather than a bonus. The most arresting scene had the pope being robed ever so slowly by assistants, each element of his costume exquisite in its own right, in a visual demonstration of power dressing.

Ms. Stavisky’s “Life of Galileo” looks pared down by comparison. Its simpler costumes and high walls, with faint light streaming through narrow slits, clear the way for a serious, insightful production, with nothing extraneous in Mr. Torreton’s performance.

From the beginning, when he undresses wearily after a long night of work and dunks his face in water for an uncomfortably long time, to his final encounter with a disgruntled former assistant, Mr. Torreton inhabits the role with focused simplicity. His character can’t see past his excesses — until it’s too late.

“Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes,” the elderly astronomer says shortly before the curtain falls — words that linger in the mind far longer than any stunts.

Parade. Directed by Martin Duncan. Théâtre du Châtelet.
La Vie de Galilée. Directed by Claudia Stavisky. La Scala Paris, through Oct. 9.
La Vie de Galilée. Directed by Eric Ruf. Comédie-Française, from Sept. 30 to Jan. 19.

More Theater Reviews from France

From The Times’s Critic, Laura Cappelle.