The Trials Of Galileo – January 2015

Experience: 7/10

Written and directed by Nic Jones

Icarus Theatre Collective

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 13th January 2015

This is the sort of play we would normally expect to see in the Mill Studio next door. While the main house wasn’t completely full, there was a good turnout, and it’s nice to see something like this being given a chance in front of a larger audience.

The stage was open and relatively bare. In the centre stood a table which was covered with a dark red cloth. A green runner went front to back, there was a seat behind and some books or papers on the table, although I couldn’t see much detail from our front row seats. Back left was a smaller table with various items which were also indistinguishable in the pre-show gloom – I guessed more books, a flask and some glasses, which turned out to be correct – and front right was a small telescope on a stand. I say small, perhaps four feet long? Various sheets of paper were scattered around, front left and right and in a few other places. When we looked at the ones near us we could see astronomical observations, such as the famous moons of Jupiter sketch with four crosses for the moons. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, I spotted a stool back right. That seemed to be the lot.

Gentle music was playing beforehand; this gave way to a rather grating cello which sounded a bit like a didgeridoo. Galileo came on and sat at the table while some recorded speeches filled in the prosecutor’s dialogue: did Galileo hold that the sun is the centre of the universe, etc.? After a bit of this, Galileo spoke directly to us and told of his treatment at the trial, before going back to his discovery of the moons around Jupiter, the writing of his book Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems and how it was banned. He gave us a gruesome description of the rack, and it was understandable that he gave in to his opponents rather than suffer that sort of torment. The first half ended with a sort of victory – the judge had to order a recess so that the court could actually read Galileo’s book for themselves; so far, they hadn’t bothered, and it made it easy for him to dismiss all their accusations. He was feeling quietly confident that he could clear his name.

After the interval, Galileo began by describing an afternoon in the Vatican gardens some time before. In the peaceful dappled shade he met the Pope, Urban VIII, and their conversation was tremendously encouraging to Galileo. The Pope was keen to support the new sciences, and provided Galileo was careful in his wording, a book on the subject of the movement of the heavenly bodies would be possible. This was all very nice and uplifting, but then Galileo brought us down to earth with a post-script: apparently the silence in the Vatican gardens was due to Pope Urban ordering the slaughter of all the birds, so that their songs wouldn’t disturb his meditations. Not a nice man.

This awareness was reinforced by a visit from a lawyer, who made it clear that no one could go up against the Pope and win. Galileo’s mistake had been to ridicule the Pope in the Dialogue; the character Simplicio, who supports the earth-centred world view, not only comes across as a fool at times, he also speaks words very similar to those of the Pope himself. While it hadn’t been Galileo’s intention to insult the Pope – Simplicio was meant to represent the common man – offence was taken, resulting in Galileo’s subsequent persecution.

With the production of a special edict, his enemies were finally able to nail him; no matter that the special edict hadn’t been written until after the recess was declared and that Galileo had never received it, etc. He caved, and as he prepared himself to say the penitential prayer, he told us that he had finally realised what the words meant: that the planet would keep on turning, for ever and ever, amen.

This was an engaging piece, which brought out some new information as well as covering familiar territory. Tim Hardy was the only actor, and apart from the recorded voice of the prosecutor, he played the Pope and the lawyer during those conversations. Little changes in body language, small changes in direction, and he was instantly the other person. There were a few occasions early on when I felt that he was relying on  technique instead of inhabiting the role, but I was still involved throughout. A play that I would happily see again.

© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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