For a thrilling production by Howard Davies,
with the title role brilliantly played by Simon Russell Beale,
beg, borrow or steal a ticket to Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece
“Galileo” at the National Theatre through October 31.
The time and place are seventeenth-century Italy, where
Galileo struggles against the establishment to assert the truth
of his discovery that the earth revolves around the sun, considered
heretical by the Church’s teaching that it was the other way around,
with man at the center of an ordered, Ptolemaic system. Yet the characters wear modern dress, giving
broader, contemporary relevance to Galileo’s fight, and foreseeing
a time when ultra-conservatives will deny evolution and science
will invent horrors like the atomic bomb.
The action begins in Padua in 1609 with confident,
self-assured Galileo elated at his discovery, turning his telescope
on the heavens, with the audience sharing the excitement as back
projection in Bunny Christie’s airy set reveals the wonders of
the universe. Hailing “the new age” ushered in now that he
can, by using the telescope, prove Copernicus’s theory of a heliocentric
universe, Galileo is stunned by the church’s refusal to even look
through the telescope. He also is rejected by the guardians of Cosimo
de Medici, whom he seeks as a patron to supplement the meager
income of a university professor of mathematics. For Galileo is a law unto himself, a committed
scientist who likes to live well; his cigarettes and Johnny Walker
in the opening scene reveal a weakness and indulgence of the flesh
that later contribute to his tragedy.
Brecht’s earlier translators were academics,
so to compare Eric Bentley’s awkward, dreary version with this
production’s adaptation by playwright David Hare is a revelation:
it is fresh and sharp, humorous and pointed.
And the cabaret scene as staged by Mr. Davies, is a delight,
a satirical song-and-dance number with a mock-priest and three
“women of reputation” singing of the topsy-turvy effect on society
of Galileo’s “heady proposition that people can be masters of
Mind-stretching and funny as well as serious,
the work (which Brecht continually revised over eighteen years)
centers on Galileo as a man “who cannot resist an old wine or
a new idea.”
This ambiguity consummate actor Simon Russell Beale interprets
with aplomb, telling us that “Truth is the child of time and is
not the prisoner of authority.” He
then progresses from being lionized by society in Rome and revered at a l616 masked ball (the masks suggesting his adulators a well as
his own distrust of them), to continuing his research, and finally
being arrested for heresy in 1633.
Threatened with torture, he is forced to recant, to deny
the truth he discovered and for which he fought for so long.
A shuffling old man, nearly blind, under house arrest in
Florence, he seems to comply with the orders of the Church, yet
is secretly working on a manuscript, he confides to his former
student Andrea. At the
end, through Andrea’s efforts, despite Nazi-like guards at the
border, “the word goes out.”
An impressive supporting cast of some twenty-five
includes Julia Ford as Galileo’s faithful housekeeper, Elisabeth
Dermot Walsh as his daughter Virginia, Ian Barritt as the Senior
Cardinal, Oliver Ford Davies as the Cardinal Inquisitor, and Andrew
Woodall as Pope Urban VIII.