fri 14/06/2024

Life of Galileo, Young Vic review - shared-experience Brecht is powerful, timely | reviews, news & interviews

Life of Galileo, Young Vic review - shared-experience Brecht is powerful, timely

Life of Galileo, Young Vic review - shared-experience Brecht is powerful, timely

Reason versus dogma under the stars: Joe Wright goes in-the-round

Brendan Cowell as GalileoJohan Persson

Never mind breaking the fourth wall, Joe Wright and the Young Vic have smashed the other three as well.

This isn’t simply because their engaging production of Life of Galileo, demonstrating the struggle between science and prevailing authority, is played in the round, but because the audience is such an integral part of the proceedings. To begin with, characters pop up from among spectators sitting in the circle under an enormous ceiling disc which will later act as a cosmic screen or Renaissance dome, but actors also address the audience (even once name-checking the director) as the action takes place in different locations inside and outside the central area.

Brecht wrote several versions of this play between 1938 and 1947, adapting it as the political situation changed: Hitler consolidated power, Brecht fled to America, the Allies bombed Hiroshima, and the responsibility of the scientist was thrown into stark relief. Brecht clearly had current matters in mind. Once again, in the age of “alternative facts”, the relevance of the subject matter speaks for itself. Just as the churchmen refuse to look through Galileo’s telescope to avoid seeing what they wish to deny – that the earth is not the centre of the universe – so Donald Trump declares, against scientific advice, that climate change is a hoax. Thankfully, Wright’s direction of John Willett’s clear, no-nonsense translation does not draw overt parallels. The setting is a carnivalesque present day, with Brendan Cowell’s Galileo in “come-as-you-are” casual dress, but other actors adopting masks, ruffs, cassocks or gowns as necessary for characterisation or mood.

Brian Pettifer in Life of Galileo - credit Johan PerssonSome think Galileo to be a self-portrait: as the scientist bowed to the Church’s pressure in order to continue working secretly (and to save his skin), so Brecht denied his membership of the Communist Party to the House Un-American Activities Committee and fled the US. Whatever the truth of this, Galileo is a complex character, a flawed human being capable of casual cruelty to his daughter and of wrongfully claiming the invention of the telescope as his own while heroically determined to follow his line of discovery to the utmost, but then fearful enough to compromise. Brendan Cowell (admired last year as the husband of Billie Piper’s heartbreaking childless wife in Yerma) makes him a tough nut. Stocky, bearded, Australian-inflected, he is stronger as the exuberant, energetic scientist, thrilled by discovery, dancing with delight at new knowledge, than as the older pragmatist, saddened by compromise; he never quite looks crushed by circumstance.

The joy of this production, though, is that it is such a shared experience, by the actors – efficiently doubling and trebling roles – and by the audience, sometimes in full light. The 11-strong cast inhabit a huge variety of characters, often involving broad-brush comic moments, but poignant ones, too. Billy Howle, for instance is fervent as Galileo’s most loyal disciple but is also a dancing girl in gold lurex. Ayesha Antoine, Paul Hunter, Jason Barnett, Joshua James, Brian Pettifer and Anjana Vasan as Virginia, the scientist’s hard-done-by daughter, all provide strong support. A brilliant stroke is to have the scenes announced and the linking verses spoken by excellent puppeteer Sarah Wright manipulating a tiny storytelling figure.

The projections which are part of Lizzie Clachan’s design – including the moon, Jupiter and spectacular sun spots – might have overwhelmed the play, but provide instead a cross between a planetarium and Disneyland, with gimmickry avoided and the effects judiciously controlled. Tom Rowlands, one half of The Chemical Brothers, contributes music which often uncannily matches the excitement of the visual space sequences.

The Young Vic, adaptable as always, is the perfect theatre for this production, and the play is the perfect choice for now.


Once again, in the age of 'alternative facts', the relevance of the subject matter speaks for itself


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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