God, Church and universal truth

And still it moves . . . Ian McDiarmid (Galileo) watches on as  Paul Westwood (Ludovico) explains to Chris Lew Kum Hoi (Cosimo de Medici) that the earth is the centre of the universe - despite Galileo's mounting evidence against it  Pictures: Ellie Kurttz

A Life of Galileo

Birmingham Rep


GALILEO Galilei was a heretic, perhaps the best know heretic of his day, for daring to suggest that the earth was not the centre of the universe, and had he not been quite so famous a scientist by the time he started to prove his theories, it was a heresy that might well have cost him his life.

His heresy though was not against God, but against the Holy Catholic Church and its teachings. Not only had he started to publish his works in Italian, the language of the market place and fishmonger, instead of the more exclusive Latin, dangerously opening up knowledge to the masses, the peasants and farm workers, but he was challenging the Church’s teachings on the structure and form of God’s universe.

To the all-powerful Papal hierarchy in Rome, the Florentine scientist was challenging the authority of the very Church. If the Church were to be seen as wrong on the universe, shown to be fallible on one thing, then people, even peasants, might start to question the rest.

That is the crux of Bertolt Brecht’s play, which was originally written just before the outbreak of the Second World War with a second version written, in collaboration with Charles Laughton incidentally, produced just after the war.

Laughton was to play Galileo in the premiere of the American version in Los Angeles in 1947, a production directed by Joseph Losey.

It all sounds a bit dry and intense, religion v science with Brecht’s Marxist view of the world colouring everything but in this new translation by Mark Ravenhill we have a play which is exciting, entertaining, informative – although Galileo was actually wrong on tides and falling bodies – and even moving at the end. Above all it manages to be both thought provoking and fun.

Galileo's childish delight as he explains the earth's rotation with the lamp as the sun

Ravenhill says in the programme notes the Brecht’s plays are full of humour, there may be a message but “there’s always irony, always a twinkle and in many ways he is a comic writer.”

And in Ian McDiarmid we have a Galileo with a permanent twinkle in his eye, a university teacher, scientist and father. This is a towering performance by McDiarmid as the scientific revolutionary who was, eventually, to change the thinking of the world, a man who put science and knowledge above all else, who, in Brecht’s eyes, saw science as being of benefit to mankind not just the province of those selling discoveries for profit.

We delight in his delight at seeing new discoveries in the heavens with the telescope he claims, in the play, to have invented, yet in truth only improved.  It is the delight and wonder, that explosion of the senses of a small child upon seeing the wonders of the world for the first time.

Galileo was a giant, still seen as the father of modern science, but here we see he is also human, and the threat of pain from torture by the Inquisition is enough to see him recant his heresy and live out his life withdrawn from the world under strictly controlled house arrest. His publications are banned, he is not allowed to publish new work and any experimentation is restricted  to what the Church will allow.

The rebel is still there under the surface though and he secretly smuggles out his greatest and most influential work Discorsi, or Two New Sciences, finally published in Holland in 1638, which summarised his work over 40 years. The final defiance of the Papal ban.

Matthew Albery gives fine support as Andrea, the son of his landlady, sporting a fine Welsh accent as first a pupil then an assistant to Galileo. What a Welshman was doing in 17th century Italy is a mystery although in Pisa, Galileo’s birthplace I did come across a petrol station owned by two Welshmen who had Italian wives, so the unlikely can be possible.

You feel Andrea’s deep sense of betrayal when Galileo decides discretion is preferable to torture and perhaps death and so recants. He has inherited Galileo’s scientific fervour, a conviction that truth and knowledge should be defended to . . . well, cynics might point out Andrea was not the one being tortured or doing the dying, but Galileo’s capitulation still hits him hard.

For his daughter, the plain Virginia, played by Katherine Manners with all the despair and disappointment of a daughter always coming second fiddle to science, the recantation was salvation.

Her role and her chance of marriage dashed as a result of her father’s defiance of the Church is a Brecht dramatic invention though

Matthew Aubery as Andrea struggling with revolutionary scientific concepts as the pupil of Galileo

He keeps largely to historical record, with surtitles above the stage giving events in Galileo’s life and the year they happened, but in reality Virginia, who, like his other daughter and son, was illegitimate.

With such a social stigma she was seen as unmarriageable and so was sent by her father to a convent at 13, her only option for a respectable life, and there she remained.

In the play though she is desperate for the safely of her father, despite her own loss, and to her the recantation gives him a chance of life.

But what life. The new, Rome sanctioned version of Galileo is a broken man, he has aged overnight, become an old man – but there is still that twinkle as he reveals the manuscript of his Discorsi to Andrea.

There is also good support from Sadie Shimmin as his landlady Mrs Sarti, Patrick Romer as the Cardinal Inquisitor, Chris Lew Kum Hoi as Cosimo De Medici and Jo Servi as Antonio Barberini, the Florentine nobleman who was to become Pope Urban VIII, and who protected Galileo from the worst excesses of the inquisition.

Director Roxana Silbert keeps the action moving along at a cracking pace, helped by Tom Scutt’s flexible set of three backcloths and a collection of mobile safety steps of various heights of the sort seen in warehouses.

These provide thrones, platforms, church candle holders and even an opening bath room. Dress is largely modern and visually this is a satisfying production with the instant scene changes by the cast providing interest as to what is to come next rather than an interruption to the flow.

Ravenhill has streamlined the script, keeping in the essence rather than allowing Brecht’s sometimes self-indulgent tendency for preaching to flourish, although as always with Brecht there are resonances with what happened in the early 1600s having its echoes today with religious myopia defying scientific fact, hence those who believe the bible is a documentary account, that the world was created in seven days, that creationism should be taught as scientific fact.

There is also the howling down of anyone defying authorty, these days Government and big business, on anything from GM crops and fracking to daring to believe that global warming might not be solely down to man and CO2 production – where would that sort of thinking leave the lucrative carbon credits trading market.

Galileo eventually realises that truth can be a dangerous thing when it challenges to dogma of the all-powerful Church

If there is a weak point it is perhaps the songs and doggerel with the full cast which opens Act II which is not helped by the Rep’s less than perfect acoustics but even so seems a little out of place which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the excellent off stage band with incidental music under musical director Candida Caldicot.

But this RSC production, in association with Theatre Royal Bath Production, can hardly be judged on one incidental scene, led by McDiarmid, this is a memorable and at times fun interpretation of Brecht and even the scientific arguments are interesting with its two and a half hours seeming to whiz by

Incidentally, one irony missed by Brecht is the fact Galileo at first wanted to be a priest, to join the very Church which was to be his nemesis, but, changing the course of history, was persuaded to study for a medical degree at The University of Pisa by his musician father. To 08-03-14.

Roger Clarke


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