The Theatreguide.London Review
The Life of Galileo
Olivier Theatre 2006
Brecht's sprawling epic play covers thirty years in Galileo's life, centring on his discoveries that proved that the Earth moved around the sun, and the Catholic Church's forcing him to disown such heresy
(To oversimplify, the Church had adopted the Ptolemaic cosmology, with the Earth at the centre of the universe, as nicely supporting its teachings, and questioning that would threaten its authority in everything else).
David Hare has trimmed the play (which still runs over 3 hours) and simplified its arguments. Of the many sources of the conflict between science and religion, he stresses Galileo's commitment to truth and the churchmen's sincere belief that people need the comfort of Biblical cosmology and Church authority.
Others of Brecht's themes - the reduction of science to practical commodity, the Church's protection of its political economic power, a post-Hiroshima warning of the moral obligations of scientists to know what their discoveries will be used for - are given due space, but not allowed to get in the way of the play's forward movement.
Director Howard Davies' decision to put it into modern dress, at first disconcerting, makes the contemporary relevances clear.
At the centre of almost every scene is Simon Russell Beale's Galileo, another in the parade of moving, involving and very real portrayals by an actor who may very well be the finest of his generation.
Some actors immerse themselves in their characters until they're unrecognisable, while others make themselves part of the character. In some of his recent performances Simon Russell Beale has proved to us that Uncle Vanya, Hampton's Philanthropist, Macbeth and even Hamlet were all short, fat little men in rumpled clothes.
And in doing so, he illuminated things in the plays (like Hamlet's discomfort in his own body) that more type-cast actors couldn't.
And so it is here. His Galileo is no hero, but a backroom boffin, an archetypal nerd who may be a brilliant scientist but is, at least at the start, without social graces or street smarts.
It is so obvious to him that proving something scientifically makes it true, and that that is a good thing, that he can't cope with people who don't think that way.
This is illustrated in a semi-comic but shocking scene in which fellow scientists invited to look through his telescope at the newly-discovered moons of Jupiter prefer to treat the question through logical debate (According to Aristotle, Jupiter can't have moons, for the following three reasons, and therefore there's no point in looking through your little toy)
At the same time Russell Beale's Galileo remains unable to appreciate the dangers to the status quo that his discoveries raise, or the sincere concerns of those who do not enthusiastically embrace his new truths.
In the course of the play, he moves Galileo from disbelief through frustration to rage at the authorities' wilful rejection of what to him is simple fact, and finally to sad resignation and, in his recantation, the discovery that even he would rather be allowed to live and work in obscurity than sacrifice himself just because he's right.
So, what in other hands and other productions has been a coldly intellectual manifesto or a soulless pageant is here always a life-size and human story of mostly honourable people in tragic conflict, with the one man who is least temperamentally equipped to deal with the issues stuck at its centre..
Along with the star there are strong performances from Julia Ford as his long-suffering housekeeper, Andrew Woodall as the not-unsympathetic Pope, Oliver Ford Davies as the menacing Inquisitor, and Zubin Varla as a priest won over to science but still fearing the social and spiritual implications of Galileo's work.
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