The Life Of Galileo @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Simon Russell Beale
Oliver Ford Davies
Zubin Varla
Andrew Woodall
Ryan Watson
Bryan Dick
Elisabeth Dermot Walsh
Julia Ford
Dermot Kerrigan

directed by
Howard Davies
Bertolt Brecht’s powerful dramatization of the conflict between the scientific rationalism of astronomer Galileo and the religious dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in 16th-century Italy has a complicated history.

Originally written in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, The Life of Galileo was substantially revised for the first English-language production starring Charles Laughton in Los Angeles in 1947. Then further changes were made in the 1950s after Brecht had settled in Communist East Germany. Each version variously reflects the time and place in which in which it was written, and also the different collaborators with whom Brecht worked.

This streamlined version by David Hare, based on the 1994 one he did for the Almeida Theatre, with some changes, strips away some of Brecht’s alienation elements but still has a running length of about three hours including two intervals. (The Venetian carnival and Kurt Weill-style cabaret scenes would be better cut.) With its passionate intellectual engagement with big themes, this is epic theatre all right.

Under Howard Davies’s assured direction, the exploration of weighty ideas takes on a compelling intensity. However, staging the play in modern dress seems to be overstretching for contemporary relevance. Yes, there is sometimes still tension between secular free speech and religious fundamentalism in the Western world today but the Church does not represent the power of the establishment as it did in Galileo’s time.

The astronomical background is reflected in Bunny Christie’s magnificent set, with its illuminated heavenly bodies and an observatory-like dome which, like the planets in our solar system, rotates in a sphere, on the revolving stage.

As Galileo explains to the young son of his housekeeper with the aid of a bowl of fruit (the forbidden fruit of knowledge?), the Earth is not the static centre of the universe around which the other planets revolve, but itself is constantly in motion as it revolves around the Sun. But, as his friend Sagredo asks after they have been looking through Galileo’s new, revolutionary telescope, in that case where is Heaven? To which Galileo replies, ‘I am a scientist, not a theologian.’

The fact that his discoveries in effect reduce the significance of man, and hence call into question his maker, at first does not make Galileo afraid of challenging the authority of the Church: Copernicus had got into trouble in the previous century because he came up only with the theory whereas Galileo can prove it.

But, whether through naivety or hubris, as we see Galileo moving from Padua through Venice and Florence to Rome, there is a sense that he is getting nearer to the centre of influence (the Vatican) and is in danger of being burned, specifically by the Inquisition.

One can see why the Marxist Brecht was fascinated by Galileo. Although the idea of an individual having the ability to change the course of history seems to contradict the Marxist orthodoxy of mass movements, Galileo’s story has strong political implications. The Church, closely allied to the State, was afraid that if ordinary people, without the ‘opium of religion’, started to doubt their suffering had any meaning they would then question the whole status quo and rebel.

Simon Russell Beale’s Galileo dominates the stage as the Sun does our universe. He is not portrayed as a hero but as an unsophisticated sceptic for whom truth-seeking is a compulsion, to which he will even sacrifice his daughter’s marriage to the nobleman she loves. Beale shows him to be a sensualist not made to be a martyr. After his public recantation and subsequent permanent house arrest, he ages palpably and seems physically reduced. It’s a very moving performance that gives Galileo a tragic stature.

The other parts are very much subsidiary but Andrew Woodall makes an impact as the seemingly sympathetic, scientific Cardinal Barberini, who later becomes Pope Urban VIII and who reluctantly gives Oliver Ford Davies’s quietly menacing Cardinal Inquisitor permission to show Galileo the ‘instruments of torture’.

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