Review: The Life of Galileo, National Theatre, London

A new version of Bertolt Brecht’s play by David Hare disappoints Mark Brown

Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo is one of the playwright’s most fascinating works for the stage. Consequently, David Hare’s new version for the National Theatre, directed by Howard Davies, has generated considerable anticipation and excitement.

Brecht, who was a German Marxist, wrote the play in exile from the Nazi regime. Written in the years immediately before the Second World War, it was first staged in Zurich, in neutral Switzerland, in 1943.

The drama traces the revolution in science advanced by the 17th century Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei. Finding evidence that his predecessor, Copernicus, was right in his hypothesis that the Earth revolved around the sun, and not, as the church insisted, the other way round, Galileo placed himself in conflict with the Roman Catholic Inquistion.

According to Christian theology, the Earth was the fixed centre of the universe. Copernican science would lead people to question where god sat in the “heavens”, and even to doubt the very existence of god himself.

Discovery

The play shows Galileo’s excitement at his discovery—an excitement which spreads among a small and dedicated band of supporters. It also focuses on the immense pressure which was brought to bear upon the scientist to recant and publicly withdraw his conversion to the Copernican model.

At face value, Brecht’s work is about the battle between religion and science. However, written as it was in the dark days of a spreading fascism in Europe, it also functions as a powerful political metaphor.

Communists and socialists were facing imprisonment, torture and death throughout Europe for upholding a vision of society which stood entirely at odds with the prevailing ultra-nationalist and counter-revolutionary ideas. Galileo’s dilemma, to uphold the truth and risk his life, or to recant his ideas, was one being faced by revolutionaries and anti-fascists across the continent.

Today the play’s political metaphor remains relevant in many ways, as do its reflections on the struggle for scientific truth. Just as Galileo is told that his scientific ideas are “dangerous”, so today we see moral panic over human genetic research and cloning. The threats against Galileo if he refuses to recant have chilling echoes in the pressure placed upon Dr David Kelly over the non-existent WMD in Iraq.

The most impressive element in the production by far is Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Galileo, around which, ironically enough, the entire piece revolves. By turns exhilarated, obsessive, defiant, fearful and quietly courageous, he creates a wonderfully informal and energised portrayal of a man thrust into the frontline of history.

Great though the lead performance is, however, the production is riven with weaknesses which steadily drain away the power of the play.

The performances themselves are painfully uneven. Duncan Bell is superb as Galileo’s pleading friend Sagredo and Ryan Watson impresses as the boy Andrea Sarti (who is a dedicated student of Galileo). But Julia Ford, as Andrea’s fearful and devout Catholic mother, overacts nervously from start to finish.

Passionate

The real problem lies in Hare and Davies’s reinterpretation of Brecht. Last year at the National the same duo of adapter and director created a disappointing production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s great play The House of Bernarda Alba. This robbed Lorca of that passionate, painful sense of “duende” (magic) which is the very essence of his theatre.

Now they have done something remarkably similar with Brecht. They attempt to turn the playwright’s deliberately alienated, epic theatrical style into something naturalistic, emotive and even sentimental.

At the moment when Galileo’s supporters await the toll of the bell which will herald the scientist’s recantation, Hare and Davies make the drama into a thriller. The suspended silence, the characters pointing melodramatically towards the bell tower, focus us on the emotions of suspense, rather than the implications of the recantation.

Brecht’s long-time collaboration with the composer Kurt Weill made music an important part of his theatre. But the daft music and dance numbers which open the second and third parts of this production are a weak diversion and a travesty of Brechtian technique.

Performed on designer Bunny Christie’s fabulous revolving set, which is shaped like an observatory, this is a handsome production with a truly excellent central performance. One can’t help but feel, however, that once again Hare has foregrounded his own insipid theatrical tastes to the detriment of the great playwright he is adapting.

This review was originally published in Socialist Worker, dated July 15 2006

© Mark Brown

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