First Night: The Life of Galileo, Olivier National Theatre, London

Star performance takes Brecht's Galileo into a different orbit
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The Independent Culture

Speaking personally, and at the risk of causing heart failure amongst card-carrying Shavians, I think that, in saving us from such a commemoration, Hytner demonstrates not only that he has exquisite taste but that he's a great and unsung humanitarian.

It's good, though, that he's honouring the 50th anniversary of the death of Bertolt Brecht - and in grand style, too. The Life of Galileo is the dramatist's greatest play; it's presented in a slightly rejigged version of David Hare's wonderfully fresh, sharp and streamlined 1994 adaptation; and it stars Simon Russell Beale, who does a supremely brilliant line in self-loathing eggheads and thus was born to play the eponymous scientist who was guilty of intellectual betrayal in recanting, when faced with torture, his momentous, hierarchy-destabilising contention that the earth is not the centre of the universe.

For Howard Davies's urgent, bitingly funny and morally devastating modern-dress production in the Olivier, Hare now restores and refurbishes a Cabaret-style carnival interlude where a louche mock-priest and three establishment-parodying trollops sing with raunchy, decadent glee of the threat to the social order posed by Galileo's findings - "the heady proposition that people can be masters of their fate".

But the play is otherwise liberated by the removal of such Brechtian paraphernalia as scenic captions and folksy proverbs.

Brecht wrote the piece in several versions over a span of 18 years, partly in response to Nazi tyranny which he resisted and then to Stalinist tyranny which he officially approved and in the light (if that is the word) of Hiroshima and the atomic bomb.

What Simon Russell Beale's brilliant performance brings out is the powerful ambiguity of Galileo and of Brecht's ambivalence towards him. I'm not sure he captures the hedonistic side of the protagonist. Though fleshy and sloppy, he seems too prickly and fastidious to suggest a man who "cannot resist an old wine or a new idea". The intellectual and the carnal appetite don't seem indivisible.

What he does convey, though, is how Galileo always seems, dangerously and potentially damagingly, to be a law unto himself.

Even while thrilling you with the reach of his intellect and by his fierce insistence that "Truth is the child of time and is not the prisoner of authority", Russell Beale's Galileo lets you see the less admirable side of this intransigency. There's a selfishness here that you sense might cause him to buckle at the prospect of pain. And in the final scene, the self-disgust is positively corrosive as he contemplates the cost of his recantation.

Guilty of his own intellectual betrayals, Brecht was able to explore in Galileo doubts he was less prepared to investigate personally - which demonstrates that art can be greater than the artist.