Important as the theories and plays of Bertolt Brecht have been for several decades to those who study drama anywhere, I wish British theatregoers in the past 20-plus years had had more chance to see his plays on stage. Although The Threepenny Opera, The Life of Galileo and Mother Courage come round in particular, Brecht today plays a far smaller part in British repertory than his reputation might lead one to expect. Does this suggest that he has now become historically important rather than lastingly powerful?

Now, however, the National Theatre is marking the half-century of his death with a new production of Galileo, which is generally called his greatest play. I’m sorry that I never saw its 1980 production, which launched Michael Gambon into theatrical greatness in the title role; but the 1994 Almeida production, starring Richard Griffiths, was visually beautiful and deeply moving. Especially since it is part of the Travelex £10 season, I recommend the new production by Howard Davies to anyone who hasn’t seen the play. Simon Russell Beale, who has such a gift for scorn and the sardonic, is well cast in the title role: he gives it terrific attack and rhythm. The sheer epic sweep of the narrative is so fascinating, the human interest of Galileo’s intransigence and his recantation so remarkable, that you come out wanting to read Galileo biographies and histories of science. (Brecht makes an incidental historical mistake or two.) But the play itself now seems altogether less remarkable than I once thought it.

In showing how Galileo had to fight – often losing battles – against the Christian Aristotelianism of his day to demonstrate the laws of the universe as we now understand them, in showing those human sacrifices he was prepared to make and those he wasn’t, The Life of Galileo abounds in strong material. However, at just about every point Brecht lets you know how to think. You’re not always pro-Galileo, but you’re never conflicted on his behalf. There is a didactic mind at work here, and it keeps diminishing the drama.

Davies and his designer Bunny Christie have put the play in modern dress. Paradoxically, this doesn’t make the play closer to us but more distant: these characters in shirt sleeves with their cigarettes are talking versions of the cosmos and society and Italy that were discarded centuries ago. Another distancing factor is that Russell Beale, so much better at intellectuality, scepticism and self-loathing than at open-heartedness, pathos or vulnerability, lets us see the sacrifices Galileo makes without feeling them: how much does this man love his daughter or his friends or even his eyesight? Russell Beale keeps us far more alienated than that arch-Brechtian Ekkehard Schall did when he performed part of the play here in the 1990s.

Running at about 3¼ hours, the action here is in three acts. Davies starts Part Two with a cartoon- baroque ballet that suddenly turns into a tango, and Part Three with a cabaret song about progress, but neither is stylish and the latter is overlong. As the Cardinal Inquisitor, Oliver Ford Davies is ruinously afflicted by whistling sibilants. Amid the large cast, Julia Ford as Galileo’s housekeeper, Duncan Bell as his friend Sagredo, Zubin Varla as the Little Monk make strong contributions. The most sheerly commanding performance is Andrew Woodall as Cardinal Barberini, whom we see become Pope Urban VIII. In the scene where he is robed centre-stage, but in which he finds himself increasingly circumscribed by the Inquisitor, he gives us a more rounded and admiring view of Galileo than this production. ★★★☆☆

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