About midway through the first act of David Hare’s thrilling new version of Bertolt Brecht’s sprawling epic drama about the seismic medieval stand-off between science and religion, a moment of doubt suddenly crept in. What would happen today if Western belief systems went completely haywire after some astro-physicist or other suddenly discovered that Galileo got it wrong?
Supposing a new breed of boffins was able to prove that the solar system isn’t what modern science has always told us and that the planets are in fact attached to a celestial sphere that moves around the earth while the moon is made of cheese?
I don’t know if that’s what is meant by the famous Brechtian "alienation" effect, but Hare’s script – an impassioned variation on his 1994 Almeida Theatre version - and Howard Davies’ knock-out production, performed mostly within a skeleton observatory set against a sky at night projection of the moon, certainly makes the earth - or at least the NT Olivier stalls - move far enough from its normal axis to give you a glimmer of what it must be like when an entire mindset, and the social and political hierarchy that keeps it in place, is sent spinning out of control by enquiring mathematicians and physicists like Galileo, whose pursuit of the empirical truth placed him in direct opposition to the ideology of the Church.
In Davies’ modern-dress production, the news of Galileo’s discoveries sends the low-life tarts and street life of Venice wild with enthusiasm in a gloriously louche Threepenny Opera-style parody of the priests who preach conformity to Rome. And there’s a sense of freedom at the beginning of the play too, when Simon Russell Beale’s Galileo gazes at the stars through one of his new-fangled optical lenses and announces a “new age” when it’s a “joy to be alive”.
But having effectively abolished all conventional wisdom about the nature of heaven, Galileo ends up as an elderly heretic living under house arrest and bemoaning the fact that, as a scientist, he’s fathered a “race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for anything”.
This is another groundbreaking performance from Russell Beale, who captures both the compromised humanity of a man who “cannot resist an old wine or a new idea” and yet refuses to face the consequences of his self-obsessed genius, even destroying his daughter’s chances of marriage for the sake of proving his latest proposition.
Apart from old Mother Courage herself, Brecht wrote only half-decent roles for women, but Elisabeth Dermot Walsh manages to give the over-protective daughter a doomed spiritual life of her own, while Oliver Ford Davies as the grave Cardinal Inquisitor and Bryan Dick as Andrea Sarti, the idealistic young apprentice who eventually spreads Galileo’s ideas across Europe, also stand out in a evening where you never once feel as if you are peering at the clash between science, religion and common humanity through the wrong end of a telescope.
- Roger Foss