Galileo Galelei - the famous Bertold Brecht play  
Adapted into Tamil and presented by Magic Lantern, a theatre group in Chennai 
- Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, Chennai 

June 21, 2005 

Galileo Galelei, one of the well known plays of German playwright, Bertold Brecht was presented by Magic Lantern, a well known theatre group of Chennai. The original play which has a duration of 4 hours had been edited by Mu. Ramaswamy,  the director of the present version. This version is in Tamil and the translation has been done by T A Sadasivam. Dr. Mu.Ramaswamy is currently the head of the department of Theatre in Tanjavur Tamil University. He has presented this play in 1996, 1997, and 1998 with himself as the hero and protagonist, Galileo. At the request of Magic Lantern, Ramaswamy conducted a theatre workshop from May 8 to June 5, to introduce theatre and the basics of acting to young actors. The workshop was production oriented and geared towards staging of the play Galileo at the Alliance Francaise auditorium, Top Storey.  

I saw the play on the last day of its production, June 5. It was a very moving and at the same time soothing experience. My nerves are at present frayed by viewing various theatre productions which fall short of professional and quality efforts. So, watching Galileo Galelei, which paid attention to the importance of actor to theatre was a profoundly moving experience. I was quite impressed with the set that Hans Kaushik from Magic Lantern had made for this play. The main advantage of the set was that it was suggestive of the ambience needed for the play with posters of Milan, Florence and Pisa. The globes which were hung from the rafters also gave a peep into the kind of research Galileo was involved in. But, more than anything, the sets left a great deal of space for the actors to move freely and emote. 

The music that was used whenever there was a change of scene was mostly mood music pieces indicating the mood of the main protagonist, from Tchaikovsky. It was sparingly used and had the intended effect of setting the mood for each scene. In true Brechtian style, there were video clippings on one of the side walls - abstract images with some narrations or quotations, again indicating the changing moods and situations of the protagonist. The video clippings being presented on a screen which resembled an open book was another imaginative device. The video clippings were there to bring in the breaks or punctuations required in the narrative aspect of the play in order to create the alienation/distanciation effects which Brecht propagated. There was no interval or breaks, so the play flowed smoothly without any interruption. Two hours passed without the viewers feeling the strain at all. I feel that this is the real test of a good theatre piece. It was not an entertaining or humorous piece, though there were glimpses of humour here and there. A very serious piece appealing to the intellect and creating serious theatre viewing awareness was able to capture the attention of the viewers, not even flagging their interest once. All credit goes to Mu Ramaswamy for creating this effect. 

Ramaswamy informed the audience in his introduction to the play that most of these actors were appearing on the stage for the first time. In spite of the fact that they did not have any prior serious training in theatre, the actors coped with their roles very well. Mr. Ramaswamy indicated that he felt that the time given to him was rather short to produce a play of this dimension. Had he been given more time, he could have trained the actors better. Considering that these actors were truly amateurs, the acting was of a very high standard. What was interesting was a combination of spontaneity and training which went hand in hand in a seamless manner. It was very obvious in the two very young children who did the roles of Andrea Sardi, as a young boy and the young Medici ruler. I asked Mr. Ramaswamy how he managed to make these actors, whose knowledge of Tamil was limited, to memorise the lines. His answer gave me a revelation to the kind of acting he taught. He said that his actors were never asked to memorise lines. They practiced theatre games suited for the play. Once the movements were concretized, they were asked to go on enunciating the lines that go along with the movements. So, the movements gave the actors the momentum to remember the lines. Another aspect of theatre which came through very well was the projection of voice and the enunciation of the lines in the dialogue. All of them said their lines clearly, without dropping the words and could be heard clearly even by the audience sitting in the last rows. 

The style of acting was truly Brechtian. Seven of the actors took on the role of Galileo in different scenes. So, for the audience, they became mere "representations" of the character Galileo rather than Galileo himself. At no time was the audience allowed to identify with the character and feel emotionally involved. At the same time, the audience could never forget the plight of Galileo and how his scientific curiosity had to confront and come to terms with the religious faction headed by the Pope and the secular faction headed by the Medicis. Both were in effect opposed to change and new inventions in the scientific sphere. Through the character of Galileo, Brecht was trying to examine the issues of scientific morality and the difficult and obstacle ridden relationship between an intellectual and authority. The relationship between Andrea, the disciple and Galileo the master, was depicted movingly. 

The training given to the actors was such that all of them were capable at the end of the workshop to take on any role in the play. This again was laying the emphasis on the Brechtian principle of giving up the conventions of theatrical illusion and developing the drama as a social and ideological forum for leftist causes. "Bertold Brecht's genius was for language built upon a certain bold and direct simplicity. His words contain a rare poetic vision, a voice that has rarely been paralleled in the 20th century." Ramaswamy who has studied Brecht in depth, was able to give this quality of poesy and simplicity to the play. Rarely has the city seen in recent times, such a profoundly simple and yet moving and flowing play. 
Vasanti Sankaranarayanan, is a PhD holder from Madras University on the subject "Malayalam Cinema, Society and Politics of Kerala". She has translated books from Malayalam to English and vice versa and has written some dance scripts. She is a freelance journalist and art critic.