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Edinburgh Fringe 2015

The Trials of Galileo

Icarus Theatre Collective

Genre: Drama, Solo Show

Venue: New Town Theatre


Low Down

This outstanding one man show is set around the trials of Galileo in 1633 in which he was tried for heresy after demonstrating that the world circled the sun rather than vice versa. Galileo’s encounter with the Catholic Church became the defining event for the stormy relationship between science and religion. Nic Young’s script and Tom Hardy’s performance add up to a powerful chemistry.


In the spring of 1632 Galileo had published a book (after many years work) entitled ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’. It was modelled on Plato’s dialogues with three speakers – Salviati defends Copernicus’s heliocentric astronomy (that the earth circles the sun, not vice versa), Sagredo who is open minded and Simplicio who obstinately defends Aristotelian-Ptolemaic geocentric worldview. This approach allowed him to claim that the book was neutral but the Catholic Church didn’t see it that way. In 1633 Galileo was arraigned by the Roman Inquisitor charged with promoting heresy and tried by ten cardinals.

Galileo probably was a genius and a painstaking and careful scientist. However, in his battle with the church he failed to understand that it wasn’t a question of proof, but of politics. Something the Vatican cardinals were expert at.

Nic Young’s play performed by Tim Hardy is framed by the trials (there were three in all, over several months in the Spring of 1633) and provides and analysis of the key points of dispute and takes us into the mind of the man behind the science.

Galileo was a deeply religious man, he had considered becoming a priest but his father persuaded him to study medicine instead. He qualified as a doctor but eventually become most interested in physics and improved on the early designs of telescopes until he had created one that had could magnify an object to thirty times its original size. Young captures all these biographical points and slips them in almost unnoticed but the real power of the piece is the exploration of how Galileo might have understood and made sense of that which he observed as well as his experience of the trial.

The play begins at the end of the trials when Galileo has, unwillingly, recanted and is about to sign the confession of error. He then weaves in and out of the past as he tells the story of his findings and the trial. One striking aspect of Young’s script is the way that he explores Galileo’s sense of failure at having signed the confession, at not being willing to die for what he had found, as the early Christian martyrs had. He then goes on to tease out the process of arriving at the proof that the earth circles the sun, to show that it was not the simple discovery that it is often presented as, but a challenging and painful one.  God and faith were central to Galileo’s life so the challenge of believing what he was seeing wasn’t only one for the Catholic church, because, as he says, where revelations are concerned ‘God chooses, you don’t go looking’. The result is a beautiful character study of a thoughtful, clever and pious man. Add Tim Hardy into the mix as portraying Galileo Galilei and you have a unique chemistry in which we could almost believe we were in Galileo’s study.

From the moment that Hardy delivers the first line we know we are in the hands of a consummate performer. He is by turns confident, witty, uncertain, puzzled, reflective, angry and in being so creates an entirely believable Galileo. He has only a tiny stage with a desk, a few papers and his telescope but we feel that we are privileged to be allowed into his study as he finds another letter or paper that might provide the evidence to prove the prosecutor wrong. Despite these constraints Hardy creates the courtroom, the garden of the Vatican, his observatory switching effortlessly into other characters – the prosecutor, Pope Urban VIII – and this variety sustains the pace and makes the piece absorbing throughout.

Galileo could never understand why proving that the earth circled the sun rather than vice versa was in any way heretical – after all the whole universe was God’s creation so would he not have arranged it all in the best possible order to work? Did it matter what circled what?  In this story are resonances with modern science/faith arguments – less so in this country but very significant in American politics. So, whilst in many ways this is an interesting history lesson, a beautiful character study of a genius, in others this is a provocation to think, to remember that single minded blinkered prosecutors are not only a thing of the 17th Century.