Young Vic, London – until 1 July
The year 1632: we are halfway through the epic conflict between Galileo Galilei and the Holy Roman Church, an authority in its day quite as ruthless as Stalin and as doctrinaire as Mao. Our hero has wisely gone quiet for eight years after the initial exuberant stirrings of his realisation, deduced from the moons of Jupiter, that the earth does not actually lie “serene and motionless” at the heart of a universe of crystal spheres with immobile stars.
No: it is one of many spinning, orbiting worlds. What every schoolchild learns today is still for Galileo a dangerous doctrine: the Fathers fear it will make peasants restless, destroy their sense of meaning, upset the orderly disciplines of Christendom and lead (as it did) to the Enlightenment and the age of Reason outranking Faith.
At this particular point, though, near the end of the first half of Bertold Brecht’s sprawling political fable, our hero is returning to his astronomical studies, inspired by a proof involving sunspots. His personal glee becomes ours as, to a great vibrating, deafening roar from Tom Rowland’s disco-dramatic score, we stare up mesmerised. The overhead planetarium screen, until now merely for stars or Cathedral ceilings is boiling and dazzling, the sun’s very surface a sea of golden swirling brightness…
But then comes the Inquisition, and in 1633, Galileo’s forced recantation. The moment feels horribly modern, ideology trumping demonstrable truth and reason overruled by power.
The play is intellectually and politically chewy, but despite one overlong rant near the end it should swirl any half-willing spirit along with ease. Joe Wright’s exuberant direction uses bursts of puppetry, an anarchic carnival scene, and the cast of 11 ripping round Lizzie Clachan’s circular (orbiting!) platform as 68 characters, often invading the sprawled young groundlings in the centre. The staggering projections by 59 Productions finally evolve into the heartshaking beauty of modern astronomical pictures of swirling nebulae. For a serious political play, it’s a hell of a light-show.
Glowing at its centre is the phenomenal Brendan Cowell as Galileo: burly and bearded, moving over its three hours from teacherly excitement and optimism – “People will be delighted..it is a new age! ” , to incredulity at the dreadful old clerical scholars who refuse even to look through the telescope but prefer an Aristotelian “disputation” about why it can’t be true. Thence he moves into cautious depression, alleviated by his practical empathy with “craftsmen, precision toolmakers “ (Jason Barnett is particularly good as the lens-grinder). He finds renewed energy at the advent of a Pope reputed to respect science. But the sight of the “instruments” of persuasion lead to recantation . It feels, in the hollow, echoing dramatic moment Wright gives it, a real blasphemy. Finally in old age there is Galileo’s self-loathing defiance as his old pupil Andrea (an excellent Billy Howle) returns to reprove him.
It is full of ideas: about power, truth, social structures (including economics) and personal cowardice or courage. When Andrea cries in disappointment “Unhappy is the land without heroes!” the riposte is “No – unhappy is the land which NEEDS heroes”. As true today as in Brecht’s restless 1940’s. So is the core message: “If you don’t know the truth, you are an idiot. If you know it and call it a lie, you are a criminal”.