Theatre Royal, Bath
Opened 19 July, 2004
I can see all the criticisms of Rebecca Hall in the title role here. Some will find her voice too plaintive in timbre, too unvarying in cadence, too modern-naturalistic for such a piece. Some will be irked by the amount of facial and bodily tics she incorporates. Many will pause at the fact that every professional stage engagement in her career to date has been under the aegis of her father, Peter Hall. (That she's cast here in a role of near-excessive filial devotion raises another eyebrow.) I can see all this, and I nevertheless think she's terrific.

Timberlake Wertenbaker's play (based on the book by Dava Sobel) deals with the philosopher-astronomer's indictment by the Inquisition and his forced recantation of the Copernican theory of cosmology. The elder and by far the cleverer of his two daughters, both of whom are nuns in Florence, feels so betrayed by his capitulation that she shuns further contact with him.

There are clumsy elements to the piece, notably an unnecessary (and over-acted) present-day framing device and a final scene that screams "shapely, sentimental ending". The main representative of church orthodoxy is also a conspicuous straw man, although one can't argue with the abbess's view that "Being stupid and educated is a dangerous combination in a man." Wertenbaker does, though, successfully raise all kinds of dimensions: from one angle, she delineates the commonalities between love of church, of truth, of ideas and of family; from another, she laments that when dogmatism faces Realpolitik, the former will always set the agenda, even when the Realpolitician is the Pope.

As Galileo, Julian Glover is every bit as impressive as one would expect; Anna Carteret is unobtrusively excellent as the abbess. As for Hall junior... Her weakness is that she is an instinctive actor who as yet does not fully discipline her instincts. But there's an almost astonishing degree of native talent there. Look at the grasp of unimportant, minor physical movements that make her character look natural rather than placed on a stage. Hear the sparky intelligence behind her lines. See the flair for "listening" acting, occasionally overdone, but perfectly pitched as her Sister Maria Celeste listens to the debate between her father and the entrenched Father Antony, and manifesting in a powerful stillness in the final scene as she resists speaking to or even facing her importunate father. Hall must do herself a favour and put paid to the suspicions of nepotism by taking some gigs outside the family circle. All right, make that judgement "will very soon be" terrific. But very soon.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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