A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

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 their fate.” 

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.