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FringeReview UK 2016

Trials of Galileo

Icarus Theatre Collective

Genre: Fringe Theatre, Solo Performance

Venue: Rialto Theatre 11 Dyke Road, Brighton BN1 3FE


Low Down

One way you can sense that you’re in the hands of a superb writer is when the title is good. ‘Trials of Galileo’ is a very good title indeed – Nic Young’s play is not just about Galileo’s trial by the Vatican Inquisition, but also about the scientist’s own trials of faith, as he struggles to reconcile his religious beliefs with the new revelations that his researches have opened up.


We all know at least a bit about Galileo – a follower of Copernicus’ Sun-centred theory of the Universe, who was the first scientist to use a telescope to examine the heavens.   The first human to see the surface of the Moon close up, the phases of Venus, and the four moons of Jupiter.   He put his heliocentric observations and proofs into a book, ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’, supporting Copernicus against the Earth-centred universe of Aristotle and Ptolemy.   But this, of course, put Galileo into direct opposition to classical learning – and The Catholic Church.

The story of Galileo’s trial by The Inquisition, and how he was forced to recant his view – that the Earth turns on its axis once a day, and goes around the Sun once a year – has been told many times.   Brecht’s ‘Life of Galileo’, for example, is a rather ponderous piece of theatre, usually done with a large cast and enormous sets.  On the small stage at The Rialto, by contrast, there was just an old man in seventeenth century clothing seated at a table, a few papers scattered on the floor, and a telescope at one side, mounted on a tripod.

Tim Hardy put on several decades to play Galileo as a man in his late seventies, looking back over his life and his trial.  Hardy gave us a master-class in character production as he became younger, then older again, when relating different episodes in his story.  The actor manages to evoke both Galileo’s scientific enthusiasm and his fear equally believably.  When he explains his telescope to us, he’s like an old man tinkering happily in his shed – but when he’s said the wrong thing in an audience with the Pope, he cringes, stoops to make himself less visible to the pontiff, and his voice almost breaks down in terror.

It’s a one-man show, so Hardy plays Pope Urban VIII as well.  While Galileo is at first naively over-enthusiastic, then subsequently obsequious and terrified; the Pope is unchanging – a big man, the actor holding himself erect to become taller, with a booming voice.  As Hardy switched roles, and the direction of his gaze back and forth, to produce their dialogue, I had the irresistible impression that I actually was watching two people on stage.

He does it again towards the play’s ending, when Galileo is trying to find a lawyer to represent him at the Inquisition.  The lawyer that Hardy gives us has all the attributes of a worldly-wise wide-boy Londoner (it is Renaissance Florence, after all…), and again the actor jumps between the two characters in their conversation, as the politically naïve Galileo is made to see the hard reality of what he’s up against.   ‘Trials of Galileo’ is a real tour de force – over the course of the play Tim Hardy manages to create three completely believable human beings on stage in front of us, with no tools except his vocal range and his body language.         Minimal – powerful – unforgettable.

The power is in the very elegantly constructed writing, too.  Tim Hardy’s three characters represent – the scientific spirit (Galileo), the orthodox scripture-based faith of the Church (the Pope), and the pragmatic realism of the ‘common man’ (the Lawyer).   Galileo’s offence was to have championed the Copernican theory in ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’.  ‘Dialogue’ is written as a conversation of three people – a supporter of Copernicus (Salviati), a supporter of the classical geocentric theories of Aristotle (Simplicio), and the ‘common man’ who is finally converted to the heliocentric position (Sagredo).    Nic Young has managed to build a play structure which mirrors the book that’s at the centre of it.    Masterful.

Galileo recants because he fears torture.  Tim Hardy put on an ironic smile as the astronomer described a sight of The Rack as producing a “verbal laxative”. But that’s not Galileo’s only terror.  He’s a Christian, a Catholic, brought up in the belief that – “we are here, unmoving, at the very centre of this miracle of Creation.  We are, are we not?, the apple of God’s eye”.  But he’s looked at the night sky through his telescope, and it’s not the same as in Holy Scripture. He’s seen the surface of The Moon, cratered and mountainous, he’s seen four new moons moving around the planet Jupiter.  “It is no small matter for a Christian man to see things he cannot possibly see. It’s terrifying!”.

Faith versus scientific evidence. This may be a play about events that took place four centuries ago, but the issues it raises are still frighteningly relevant – Fundamentalist Christians are very powerful in the United States and many other countries. As I write this review it is quite possible that a Creationist will become the new US Secretary of Education.

And to great extent, most of us are still quite pre-Copernican.  We talk about the Sun ‘rising’ and ‘setting’ and a lot of people couldn’t define the difference between a planet and a star. Part of the power of Tim Hardy’s performance was the enthusiasm and the awe in the way Galileo described what he’d seen.  It rang so true – I have a small telescope myself, and I too have looked at Jupiter’s four moons (now called the Galilean moons) and watched them move on successive nights. I too have gazed at the close-up surface of the Moon. I too have felt the awe.  On one occasion, I was showing it to a friend, and as the Moon’s image slid across the telescope’s field of view he remarked at how quickly our satellite was moving.  When I reminded him that, in fact, it was the Earth itself that was turning, he gasped – “Oh God, of course!”, as if the world had suddenly turned upside down.   We come to these sights after four hundred years of scientific proof, remember – just imagine how it must have been for Galileo.

He defines it as “looking into the mind of God”.

But of course, this goes against Holy Scripture. To hold or to promulgate Copernicus’ theory, or (worse) to try to prove it, is heresy.  In his audience with the Pope, Galileo naively boasts that he can prove that the Sun is at the centre, and that the Earth moves. Urban VIII replies with all the power and authority of his Office – “We find ‘proof’ a very unnatural word to use in this context.  Proof denies faith, and without faith YOU ARE NOTHING”.  The Pope is horrified – “No! No!  The Universe is a Divine Miracle, it is not a clockwork toy”.

But the Pope is not just the Pontiff of the Catholic Church, he’s a serious political player too. He needs philosophers like Galileo to bolster the intellectual and cultural standing of the Papal States and Catholic Italy against the Protestant countries of northern Europe. Countries hosting mathematician/astronomers like Johannes Kepler.  So he encourages Galileo to write his ‘Dialogue’ book – as long as it remains ‘theoretical’.

This is where Galileo’s sheltered academic view of the world betrays him. He puts the classic, orthodox, geocentric views into the mouth of his character Simplicio, letting Salviati expound the Copernican position.   ‘Simplicio’ sounds very much in Italian as it does in English – ‘Simple’, a ‘Simpleton’.  And of course those orthodox views, in line with Holy Scripture, are the ones held by the Pope himself.

Who decided that he was being lampooned. When the naïve Galileo is bewildered at his summons before the Inquisition, his Lawyer tells him – “You wrote the Pope as a fool … You called him Simplicio – you might as well have called him ‘Holy Fuckwit’ and have done with it!”.   Tim Hardy seemed to really relish these lines, as the Lawyer hammered home the political realities of seventeenth century Europe. “Outside that window, the whole world is fighting and dying for the supremacy of their faith, for their view of God and the world to triumph – in blood”.

So the Church view, the State view, had to prevail, and Galileo had to be made a scapegoat – pour encourager les autres and to keep the faith pure and undivided against the Enemy. But the offending book had, of course, already been published, in Florence in 1633.  Italians read it – in their own language, not in Latin – and copies were smuggled out to other countries.   This truly outstanding and very timely play bridges almost four centuries to remind us that the truth cannot be suppressed for long.   To quote Galileo, sotto voce after his recantation – “it still turns”.