The collapse of Communism and the rise of religious fundamentalism has changed our perspective on a 20th century classic, writes Terry Grimley...
It has almost become a cliche 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. That was Galileo equals Brecht, Catholic Church equals orthodox Communism. That no longer applies because orthodox Communism is no longer on the book. It's a concept that would be understood 25 years ago but I don't think it would be understood now.
"Communism did claim to be the rational, scientific way. Brecht's second and third versions of the play were written in the shadow of Hiroshima, but we are now getting to a point where reproductive science is becoming threatening.
"Clearly religion overthrew Communism, saying we are not the past, we were articulating what people want, whereas Communism is stuck in the late 40s. But now with the rise of Protestant fundamentalism of a particularly virulent kind in the United States, as well as Islamic fundamentalism, you have more and more people who don't believe in the view that 'I believe in my God but I respect your right to believe in a different God'."
There are points of contact here with Edgar's play Playing With Fire, inspired by the 2001 riots in various northern towns, which is now running at the National Theatre. Exploring the roots of cultural disaffection, it also reflects the cultural tensions bteween New Labour spinners and Old Labour councillors in a fictitious northern town.
One link between the two plays Edgar points out is the way that favoured New Labour words like "challenges" and "inappropriate" have washed back into his translation of Brecht.
"One of the things that has been interesting about the reaction to Playing with Fire has been a desire for answers and to say that the play should come up with them.
"It's almost suggesting that it should be agitprop, the sort of play that critics usually complain that political writers write. Writing about multicultural experience, hearing the issues Trevor Phillips has drawn attention to, I think it's bad that rationalism is on its back foot. It's going on at a time when people's confidence in science is low.
"When I was approached to do this translation, one of the reasons I thought about it before accepting is that this has the reputation of being the Brecht play for people who don't like Brecht, less didactic and more about character. It's hard to think about Mother Courage, for example, changing its meaning as dramatically.
"But it's really been fun, so I'm pleased I did the gig. And it does remind us that without science the world is flat."
* The Life of Galileo is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from Friday until November 12 (Box office: 0121 236 4455).