An unexpectedly crowded autumn continued on Saturday with yet another trip to the National Theatre, this time to see Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. I’ve seen only one play by Brecht before, Mother Courage, but that was many years ago and I retain no clear memory of it other than a sense of bleak formalism. So I wasn’t sure what to expect on Saturday, though I confess I certainly wasn’t expecting the comedy, the sharp satire, the vivaciousness, or the music.

The company was virtually the same as for The Alchemist a few weeks ago (I was again struck by the performance of Tim McMullan who seems to be shaping up as the Guy Henry de nos jours), with Simon Russell Beale taking the title role. Beale takes Galileo Galilei from early middle-age, when as a professor in Venice he makes some small improvements to the Dutch invention of the telescope and passes it off as his own, to old age under house arrest. (I noticed, in passing, that as an old man Beale adopted exactly the same hunched and limping walk he used as the Alchemist’s Igor-like assistant the other week.) It’s a remarkable performance, very physical as Beale always seems to be, declaming one moment, murmuring the next, knowing and naïve, excited by ideas and hungry for advancement.

And that gives you some idea of the fascination of the play, which is jammed with complex moral issues. And though Brecht raises questions all the way through, there are no easy answers anywhere. Even in the final scene, where Galileo’s old pupil visits him one last time and is handed the last manuscript to smuggle out of the country, any moral certainties are pulled from under us. The pupil, who had abandoned Galileo after the old man recanted to the Inquisition, makes a grand speech about the purity of truth and of science. This is the sort of thing that to our rationalist minds seems incontrovertible. Galileo’s response alternates between grand rhetorical flights and self-pity, but in the end you realise that if he was wrong to recant (and that is by no means certain) it was not for the reasons the pupil suggests, and there is nothing pure about truth or science. These are issues that have been raised in all sorts of ways all the way through the play, what is the purpose of science, what is the value of truth, what is the role of the scientist in a repressive regime, and so forth. Each time it seems you are coming close to and answer, it gets turned around into another question. I find that so invigorating.

Yet all of this seriousness is delivered in a very light way, there are even a couple of musical interludes: a grand masked ball with a solo by a countertenor that MKS found very interesting, and a barroom scene at the start of Act 3 with a song that could have come out of Cabaret. But all of this just serves to make the overall tragedy more powerful. It is hard to tell how much of this was Brecht and how much was David Hare whose ‘adaptation’ this was. I think some of the jokes about academic politics that have a very modern resonance may have come from Hare, but the deep structure was clearly Brecht. We’ve seen some good plays this year, but so far this is probably the best.

First published at LiveJournal, 30 October 2006.