Very often, this play looks something like a Shakespearean history play. Most of the characters are based directly on real people and many of the events shown bear a passable resemblance to historical fact. But there are some significant differences. It is rare in Shakespeare for one character to dominate the play as Galileo does in this one. He is on stage virtually continuously and he dominates every scene. He wins all the arguments –– except, that is, those where priestly power has the upper hand.
Nonetheless, he is aware that, faced with what remains to be discovered, understood and known, he is a beginner. ‘I’m stupid, I know nothing’ he screams when someone accuses him of being a know-all.
Ian MacDiarmid inhabits the role totally. He must be exhausted at the end of the performance. But he must also be buoyed up by the tremendous ovation he deservedly gets. And, to venture into technicalities, whether he is shouting, whispering, moaning or gabbling, every word is clear.
But –– and it’s an important ‘but’ –– all the other roles, none of which is very large in terms of time on stage or words spoken are also thoroughly inhabited.
This is quite a difficult play to watch. Although the scientific concepts being contested are commonplaces to us now, we are being taken through an intellectual shifting of ground that was (as Galileo himself observes) at odds with commonsense. It was also, because it did not accord with the Bible as it was understood at the time, revolutionary and shocking.
Presented as it is at high speed it is quite easy to glaze over momentarily and lose one’s way. This may account for the feeling that the applause when the lights came up for the interval was a tad perfunctory, perhaps indicating that in the minds of some what we were watching was not so much a play as a history lesson.
That sense, however, disappeared as the shorter post interval sequence showed. We became aware of how much human anguish lay behind the people we were watching. Most people were dismayed as we all are when we realize that we are going to have to start all over again from scratch if we want to understand our lives.
And, watching MacDiarmid, we knew that Galileo’s recantation was less a cowardly act than an acceptance that he had shifted the goalposts and no one would be able to put them back where they’d been. That was enough. The worst the popes could do could not destroy his work.