Review Round-up: Russell Beale Gives Galileo Life
Date: 7 July 2006
At the National Theatre, Simon Russell Beale stars in The Life of Galileo, the third production in this year’s Travelex £10 Season, which opened last night (Thursday 6 July 2006, previews from 28 June) in the NT Olivier (See News, 15 Feb 2006).
Russell Beale takes the title role as the 17th-century mathematician and astronomer whose discovery that the earth revolves around the sun brings him into dangerous conflict with the Church. The cast also features Oliver Ford Davies as the Cardinal Inquisitor, as well as Andrew Woodall, Zubin Varla, Tim McMullan, Duncan Bell and Elisabeth Dermot Walsh.
Howard Davies directs Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 classic, in a version by David Hare first seen at the Almeida in 1994, as a modern dress affair. If some had qualms about the resultant anachronisms, overnight critics were nevertheless unanimous in their praise of Russell Beale’s performance as the scientist who changed the face of modern science.
Roger Foss on Whatsonstage.com - “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… 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.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - “What a disturbing, contemporary resonance there is about Bertolt Brecht's epic drama of faith, truth and reason.” He praised Howard Davies’ “atmospheric, spectacular production (staged) anachronistically, in modern dress. Simon Russell Beale's thrilling Galileo, tieless, in loose shirt and cigarette to hand, has the air of a 21st-century red-brick university professor, up against the tricky authorities.… Yet the impact of Davies' updating process disconcerted me and I regretted the lack of explanatory Brechtian captions summarising the essence of scene and identifying locations. Something fresh and valuable is, though, achieved… The key to Russell Beale's bearded, bustling Galileo, for whom ideas come with almost sensual allure, is his fury. The emotion masks a sense of disappointment and self-hatred after Galileo betrays himself, his intellect and empirical truth to the Inquisition. Russell Beale, his character ageing into stiff, sad decrepitude, conveys these feelings with a riveting passion that he has never achieved before.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian - “Howard Davies, in this Olivier production… puts Hare's version into modern dress with surprising and often illuminating results…. It seems odd to see a cigarette-smoking Galileo announce ‘What you are seeing has been seen by no other person than me’, when looking at the familiar sight of the mountains on the moon. Logic aside, I sometimes missed the aesthetic beauty of the Berliner Ensemble's historically precise production. But in the end Davies has been true to the spirit of Brecht by ‘alienating’ the audience: he has forced us to re-examine what was in danger of becoming a museum classic…. Russell Beale makes no attempt to elicit sympathy for Galileo: the result of dedication to reason, he suggests, is rejection and angry impotence. Even when forced by the Catholic Church to recant his heresy, Russell Beale does not overtly seek our pity. It is only in the final scene when, looking oddly like the blind Hamm in Beckett's Endgame, he acknowledges the social duty of the scientist that he gains our admiration.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “The Life of Galileo, on which (Brecht) worked intermittently for the last 18 years of his life, appeals to the emotions as well as the mind, and is undoubtedly one of the great plays of the 20th century. Watching Howard Davies' superb production in the Olivier… you feel your mind stretching as your heart aches. The latter sensation is caused largely by Simon Russell Beale, who plays the title role with thrilling humanity, humour, intellect, passion and, ultimately, guilt and grief…. The other startling feature of Davies' production - played in modern dress, and burdened with only one ghastly Brechtian song-and-dance cabaret scene that should be instantly cut to reduce the three-hours-plus running time - is just how contemporary the play feels. As Galileo finds himself in hot water with the Vatican over his insistence that the Earth revolves around the sun and that man is no longer at the centre of the universe, it's impossible not to be reminded of today's religious fundamentalists…. This is a production that thrillingly captures the excitement of scientific thought and discovery, and it makes complex ideas sing.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent - “Simon Russell Beale… does a supremely brilliant line in self-loathing eggheads and thus was born to play the eponymous scientist who was guilty of intellectual betrayal in recanting, when faced with torture, his momentous, hierarchy-destabilising contention that the earth is not the centre of the universe.” Taylor applauded “Howard Davies’ urgent, bitingly funny and morally devastating modern-dress production” and said that “even while thrilling you with the reach of his intellect and by his fierce insistence that ‘Truth is the child of time and is not the prisoner of authority’, Russell Beale's Galileo lets you see the less admirable side of this intransigency. There's a selfishness here that you sense might cause him to buckle at the prospect of pain. And in the final scene, the self-disgust is positively corrosive as he contemplates the cost of his recantation. Guilty of his own intellectual betrayals, Brecht was able to explore in Galileo doubts he was less prepared to investigate personally - which demonstrates that art can be greater than the artist.”
- by Caroline Ansdell
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