In The Trial of Galileo we meet the 17th-century scientist Galileo Galilei (played by Tim Hardy), who is under house arrest for the fact that he has recognised Earth revolves around the sun. Not a problem to our contemporary minds as we now fully accept this as fact, but in 1600s Italy where the state is ruled by total devotion to faith in God, this discovery is seen as heresy and Galileo pays the consequences. Galileo here shares his story with us from a personal perspective, which he was not allowed to do in his lifetime. As the character states, he is condemned to be “not dead. Just mute”.
The play encompasses many moments of Galileo’s life including his discovery of planets, invention of the telescope, his subsequent trial by the Catholic state and his meetings with major historical figures such as Pope Urban VIII and Duke Cosimo De Medici. What’s particularly interesting is the focus on Galileo’s internal struggle as a religious man comprehending a world-changing discovery. The play suggests that Galileo saw himself as a figure showing the true nature of God’s creation to a society that refused to believe it.
Hardy is exceptional as the title character: he really invites the audience into the action, using the intimate space of the Old Red Lion to his advantage. You really believe in his performance and feel like you are sitting in a room with the man himself. Hardy presents Galileo as a brilliantly intelligent and complex figure, constantly struggling with his faith and reason. He also has a lightness of touch as a performer that finds the humour in what could have been a heavy hour and ten minutes.
Nic Young writes and directs the show. As a writer, Young primarily works in historical drama and documentaries on television. This shows in his work; he clearly knows his stuff and you certainly come out of the play knowing a lot about the subject. The production really sings when it allows us in to the personal sphere of the character. An example of this is the trial scene where Galileo shares his inner feelings on the hypocrisy of the situation, which is is very moving and allows us to feel with the character.
However, when the play is not focused on this it tries to cram in as much exposition as possible. As mentioned, Hardy is a brilliant performer, but for large sections of the play it feels like the character is giving an overlong history lecture. It leaves you yearning to go back to the personal reflection that is so gripping.
Aside from this, Young directs the show with a nice simplicity. There is a subtle and gentle pace that soothes us into the action and works really well. This is matched by some spare and effective lighting by Dan Saggars and haunting cello interludes from Theo Holloway and Anna-Helena McLean. All of this really allows Hardy’s performance to shine brightest of all, which feels appropriate for this show.
This is an informative and enlightening evening that educates and entertains at the same time. Hardy has already won an award for his performance which makes sense, and it is worth the trip to Islington to catch his skilled embodiment of one of science’s greatest figures.
Written and directed by: Nic Young
Produced by: Jacqui Garbett for Hint of Lime Productions
Costume Design by: Deborah Lawrence
Sound and Music by: Theo Holloway
Lighting Design by: Dan Saggars
The Trials of Galileo plays at Old Red Lion Theatre until 2 December. Further information and bookings can be found here.