The National is honouring the 50th anniversary of the death of Bertolt Brecht in grand style as part of its Travelex £10 season. The Life of Galileo is the dramatist's greatest play; it's presented in a slightly re-jigged version of David Hare's wonderfully fresh, sharp and streamlined 1994 adaptation; and it stars Simon Russell Beale, an actor who does a 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.
An excellent cast (including Oliver Ford Davies, Zubin Varla, and Andrew Woodall) conjure up a creepy sense of the jeeringly philistine intimidation tactics of the Church. 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 revising it in the light of Hiroshima.
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 that he captures the hedonistic side of the protagonist. He seems too prickly and fastidious to suggest a guzzling gourmand of knowledge who "cannot resist an old wine or a new idea".
What he does convey, though, is how Galileo always seems, dangerously, 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 free-range ego. There's a selfishness here that is a weakness as well as a strength. 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.
To October 31. 'The Independent' has reserved 200 tickets to see 'The Life of Galileo' on 16 August followed by drinks with members of the cast. Tickets are £10. To book, call the National Theatre Box Office on 020-7452 3000 and quote 'Independent'Reuse content