With debates and wars raging about religious power and state control, intelligent design vs. science-based thinking, how come no one has written a play about it all? Oh, Bertolt Brecht did. The play, “The Life of Galileo,” first appeared in 1938 and was revised by Brecht until his death in 1956. It’s not just the writer’s political prescience that makes this arguably his strongest play. It’s also the dramatic potential of the eponymous character around whom, aptly, everything revolves. And in Howard Davies’ arrestingly confident National Theater revival, that role is taken by the unassailable Simon Russell Beale.
As he proved on both sides of the Atlantic in Tom Stoppard’s “Jumpers,” no actor on the English stage is better at isolating and conveying complex intellectual thought patterns than Russell Beale. This makes him ideal casting as the man who forever changed the world because of his rationalization of how he and we saw it. Yet part of the excitement of Russell Beale’s performance is seeing how he becomes transformed, not only by his discoveries of the world around him, but by his own strength and weaknesses.
The play is by no means a dutiful explication of scientific discovery. As underlined by David Hare in his new version, this is very much about the moral and political responsibilities of knowledge.
Galileo’s supremely radical findings literally shook the world order. Contradicting centuries of church ruling and 2,000 years of astronomy, he revealed that the Earth (and, by extension, heaven) was not a fixed point in an ordered universe. And at the point where church and state were indivisible, that immediately brought him into conflict with religious leaders. Thus, at the height of his international fame, the power of the Inquisition forced Galileo publicly to recant his heretical views. He spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest. Bent double, Russell Beale broodingly conveys the self-loathing that choice induced.
The controlling church figures, up to and including a weighty and irritated Pope Urban VIII (Andrew Woodall), look suitably powerful in Bunny Christie’s costumes. Dressed in impressive formal robes of authority, they are automatically aloof from everyone else in simple, sober modern dress.
Christie’s set design, too, is scrupulous in its adherence to the play’s ideas. Galileo proved the Earth revolved around the sun, an idea mirrored by the revolving set of movable wooden walls and doors being constantly reconfigured within the open metal frame of a giant half-globe. Above it, projected images of the Earth, sun and moon hover alternately through Mark Henderson’s blue-lit haze.
The chilly efficiency of this altogether impressive realization is the production’s one prevailing wrong note. It feels too clean for a life that descends into grubby compromise. We’re constantly told of Galileo’s predilection for creature comforts, but these are nowhere to be seen. They could be embodied via the portrayals of his housekeeper (Julia Ford) and his daughter (Elisabeth Dermot Walsh), but they are presented so tidily as to have a pinched air about them.
And Russell Beale himself is overly fastidious. He makes his life of the mind so absolute that his girth looks like the result of absent-mindedness, not gluttony.
In a stage world as neat as this, Davies’ staging of Brecht’s satirical song at the top of the third act looks horribly out of place. For all their stereotypical snarling in black leather, the self-conscious company looks far too well-scrubbed to be threateningly sexy. They are not helped by the fact that the indifferently choreographed number scorning “the proposition that people could be masters of their fate” is predictable from the first bar to the last.
For all its dramatic reversals of fortune, this is a seriously talky play, and the vast Olivier auditorium can swallow up naturalistic dialogue. But the production’s best actors know how to charge up the space.
Zubin Varla is extraordinarily watchable as the Little Monk, the man who against his better judgment casts aside his belief in favor of truth. Davies stages his “conversion” with typically simple and telling economy. He seats them apart in a row of chairs at opposite ends of a long wall as the monk argues his case against Galileo. Resisting the temptation to go for immediate physical confrontation, Davies moves Varla slowly from chair to chair toward Russell Beale. His eventual arrival physically represents his changed intellectual perspective.
Not all the subsidiary perfs have that depth, but the blame for that can largely be left at Brecht’s door. Not that it matters. The raw, red meat is in the mouth of Russell Beale, who lights up with Galileo’s zeal and grows ever more thrillingly fierce as the political ramifications of his discoveries consume him.
Aside from the odd line like, “Don’t despise the market, Galileo, it’s the market that gives you your freedom,” Hare is smart enough to allow auds to draw the obvious contemporary parallels for themselves. Regardless of auds’ political or religious persuasions, this mid-20th century play consequently re-emerges as shockingly timely.