The Life Of Galileo – October 2006

Experience: 10/10

By Bertolt Brecht, in a version by David Hare

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 4th October 2006

This was excellent. It was lovely to see Simon Russell Beale again. I’ve missed many of his performances, for various reasons, and it was good to see he’s still as talented as before. He commands the stage, taking full advantage of the scope this part gives him. Even when he shows us Galileo’s unkindness towards his daughter, we can at least understand some of his reasons. He’s not a monster so much as a man obsessed.

The play covers a range of issues, but the central conflict is between science and dogma. The portrayal of the Catholic Church is refreshingly neutral, with church officials ranging from extreme dogmatists to enlightened thinkers, and it was good to see the niceties of the Church’s concerns put across. It was OK to talk about the Earth going round the Sun as a hypothetical mathematical concept, so long as it was said in Latin so the ordinary folk couldn’t get wind of it. In other words, don’t rock the boat, or we’ll throw you overboard! The overweening concern of those in power to stay in power was clear, although they tried to justify it by pretending their concern was only for those poor people who would lose the will to face such difficult lives without their absolute faith in God, as propounded by the Church. There were some lovely nuances through the play – I particularly liked the subtle innuendo of the Cardinal inquisitor (Oliver Ford Davies – another excellent performance) as he worked on Galileo’s daughter to recruit her as a spy, via her confessor. Although he could just have been warning her that anything they did would get back to him, so watch your step.

There were plenty of characters representing concerned friends, who wanted to support Galileo’s work, but who feared for his safety and that of his daughter, and others who supported him and wanted him to challenge the establishment and damn the consequences. Some of these were very disappointed, even angry, when they realised he had recanted his views, and I realised how much we human beings invest in our images of other people, how much we expect them to be perfect or heroic for us, rather than taking responsibility for our own lives and accepting others’ human frailties. I also saw how much we do this to God as well. So many people in this play saw no alternative to the Earth-centred, God created view of the world that would still allow God to exist as God. If not the still Earth at the centre, then chaos. Weird, given our greater knowledge now. Still, reason did not completely win out. The effects of Galileo’s choices left his daughter without a husband, so the human cost also had to be considered.

At one point I almost shouted out to contradict the Senior Cardinal, one of the pompous opponents of Galileo’s work. His view was that God would not have sent His only son to some little backwater of a planet on the edge of the universe. I felt like pointing out that He allowed His son to be born in a manger, so there! Obviously, this play got to me more than I realised, but I like that.

All the performances were excellent. The carnival scene reminded both of us of Cabaret, and I loved the astronomical images projected onto the back screen. The set was on a revolve, with the grid of an observatory dome at the back, not moving, three sets of French windows in bay formation at the front, or rotated to the back, and various doorways and walls with windows which could be moved around to form all sorts of acting spaces. Costumes were modern dress, and this worked well for me.

Some of the fun moments: Galileo is visited by a Dutch student looking for tuition, who tells him of the telescope people inHollandare using. Galileo grasps the idea immediately, sends out for some lenses, and pinches the idea in order to get a higher salary from the Venetians. The Dutch student’s main complaint is that he’s coloured the tube red. Then the fun begins. When the young Duke of Florence, Cosimo de Medici, comes to check out the telescope with his entourage, we get to see some of the ridiculous objections people had to Galileo’s discoveries. The mathematician objects to looking through the telescope, because logic dictates that if the agreed view of the solar system held that there were no objects orbiting bodies other than the Earth, then the telescope must be doing something wrong if it shows such things. The philosopher objected because he believed Aristotle to be correct, therefore the telescope must be wrong. (I’m getting the impression that far from being an important early scientist, Aristotle was a bit of a road block on the path to discovery.) When challenged to believe the evidence of his own eyes, he retorted that he did believe their evidence, when reading Aristotle! This nonsense was very entertaining, and although it has some echoes today, I found it more interesting as an indication of how far we’ve come since then.

We also get to see the robing of a Pope, Urban VIII. This is a long-winded business. The poor chap has to wear so many layers, presumably all representing something significant to Catholics at that time, that he wouldn’t be able to use a toilet easily. This is also the scene where the Cardinal Inquisitor requests permission to torture Galileo to get him to recant. Given Galileo’s squeamish nature, he reckons he only needs to show him the instruments of torture to do the trick, and the Pope agrees to that. The recantation scene itself was masterfully done. We see Galileo’s supporters waiting outside – his daughter, his housekeeper’s son, Andreas, whom Galileo introduced to science, the monk who ‘converted’ to Galileo’s views, and his lens-grinder. His daughter was praying for him, presumably so that he would recant. The others were bolstering their confidence by assuring each other that he wouldn’t. As the news broke, and the declaration is being read out, they crumble, none more so than Andreas, who rushes to attack Galileo when he appears. We actually see Galileo approaching first, through the windows, and he hesitates, obviously aware how his choice will have upset his friends. My thoughts about imposing expectations of heroism on others are above.

The masked ball was good, too. Again, the modern dress worked fine, and they were just skimpy masks rather than huge ones, but it got the effect across very well.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at