Galileo's Daughter, Theatre Royal, Bath

Child of the revolution
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The Independent Culture

Lucky Bath. Last summer, Peter Hall led his company in a season centred on the deceptions of love. Now he's back in partnership with the enterprising Theatre Royal with another clutch of plays, whose theme he loosely describes as "men pursued by women". While the visionary philosopher and scientist Galileo might be surprised to find himself featured in such company, Timberlake Wertenbaker's new play focuses on the eldest of his bastard offspring and her absolute pursuit of everything her father stands for. Even the name she has taken along with her convent vows, Maria Celeste, reflects his interest in celestial spheres.

Lucky Bath. Last summer, Peter Hall led his company in a season centred on the deceptions of love. Now he's back in partnership with the enterprising Theatre Royal with another clutch of plays, whose theme he loosely describes as "men pursued by women". While the visionary philosopher and scientist Galileo might be surprised to find himself featured in such company, Timberlake Wertenbaker's new play focuses on the eldest of his bastard offspring and her absolute pursuit of everything her father stands for. Even the name she has taken along with her convent vows, Maria Celeste, reflects his interest in celestial spheres.

Based on Dava Sobel's book of the same name, Wertenbaker's dramatisation of one of history's less well-documented father-daughter relationships is original, intelligent and funny; it brims with whimsical dialogue and carries its intellectual baggage lightly.

Galileo, accused of heresy for suggesting that the Earth moves round the Sun, eventually confesses that his ideas are a sham and a sin. He does so to save himself but also, and more importantly, Maria Celeste from the horrors of the Inquisition. Yet her heart is broken by his actions. To her, a hero father, whom she confesses to love more than God, has unforgivably sold his soul. The complexities of that shattered relationship are what count in the end, with the result that if Maria Celeste's eventual death fails to touch us, that is the fault of neither the writing nor the acting.

Adroitly interweaving 2004 with the 17th century, moving between Florence and Rome, circling around science, religion, arts and politics, Wertenbaker avoids being banally contemporary. She also refrains from making any Stoppardian scientific connections between present and past, instead simply framing the historical story with a tour of Santa Croce. From the bells and smells and atmospherically reverberating tones of the cleric-guide, it's a quick cut to the events of 1633 and Maria Celeste's secluded life of poverty, plague and priests in her enclosed order of nuns.

Rebecca Hall has already announced herself as an actor of considerable promise. The passion, devotion and fierce independence with which she invests her central character would inspire any father, from Galileo to her real-life director-father Peter Hall. Conveying a penetrating curiosity and determination to understand her father's theories (Galileo, that is, though no doubt Hall's as well), with a frankness and quick wit, she comes across as just the sort of girl you'd want to be your convent buddy. Of course, her exacting standards would show you up, as they do here her wine-swigging, superficial sister (Sophie Winkleman), in the worst possible light.

Julian Glover gives an eloquent and big-hearted performance as the engaging scientist whose intellects and emotions are in precise harmony. His sincerity is never in doubt, and neither is that of the Pope, compellingly portrayed by James Laurenson. If the other main characters - the viperous father confessor (William Chubb) and Anna Carteret's sweetly Sound of Music abbess, in particular - are occasionally a little too richly inhabited, the slight over-seasoning is tempered by Kevin Rigdon's cool designs and Peter Hall's astute direction. And to hear the line "Is the Pope a Catholic?" in perfect, witty context is worth the ticket price all by itself.

To 14 August (01225 448844)

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