Culture: Rehabilitating Galileo; the Collapse of Communism and the Rise of Religious Fundamentalism Has Changed Our Perspective on a 20th Century Classic, Writes Terry Grimley

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Byline: Terry Grimley

It has almost become a clichA to say that the meaning of Shakespeare's greatest plays changes to reflect the times in which they are staged - but what about Brecht's?

His play The Life of Galileo presents a classic confrontation between the rational, inquiring mind and religious dogma, as the great 17th century astronomer faces the threat of torture because of his belief that the earth is in orbit around the sun.

Galileo was supporting the theories of Copernicus rather than putting forward a discovery of his own. Having been led to believe that the Church would not make an issue of it, he did not seek confrontation but was nevertheless convicted of heresy and kept under house arrest for the rest of his life.

As recently as 1992 Pope John Paul II conceded that errors had been made by the theological advisors in the case of Galileo, but stopped short of admitting that the Church was wrong to convict him.

At the time Brecht wrote his play (1938/39, with later revisions), there was no doubt which side history was on. Nearly 70 years later, it is by no means so clear.

Birmingham playwright David Edgar, who has produced a new translation of the play for Jonathan Church's Rep production, is conscious that the context has shifted even in the last ten years.

"The great difference even between now and the last major translation, which was David Hare in 1994, is not so much that science is on the back foot and religion is on the front foot, as that what has been on the front foot in religion is fundamentalism.

"I think science was already pretty nervous about itself in the early 90s. As it can do more and more it seems less and less confident of itself. It's almost the reverse of how Brecht saw the world, that science was the future and religion was the past."

So it has to be made clear in the play that the power of the Catholic Church is something formidable: "You have to go back to basics and say these people did stop Galileo saying the truth - the earth does go round the sun."

The religious repression of free speech has a resonance closer to home, following the Rep's cancellation of the play Bezhti last year after threats of violence by Sikh extremists. Birmingham Hippodrome is also having to brace itself for demonstrations by Christian fundamentalists over the forthcoming tour of Jerry Springer - the Opera.

"Everybody says this is terribly timely, but I think it's timely in an interesting way," says Edgar. "The play is no longer about what I think Howard Brenton's version was about, in the production with Michael Gambon directed by John Dexter at the National Theatre in 1980. …