Life of Galileo

Young Vic Theatre, London (****)

© Leon Puplett, Life of Galileo and audience

© Leon Puplett, Life of Galileo and audience

Clever programming from David Lan has delivered exactly the right kind of play at the right time. Whatever you may think about Bertolt Brecht’s more doctrinaire views, here’s a play in Joe Wright’s visually spectacular, star-gazing production that says exactly what needs to be said for a society reeling from and dominated by self-interest and finance

Wright, with all the resources of modern technology at his disposal pumps up the Young Vic auditorium with house and disco-thumping music as if afraid Brecht’s words may prove too indigestible for our tender political stomachs. But he – or rather 59 Productions – also fills the roof of the arena with awe-inspiring projections of the sky and the planets. How Holst would have warmed to seeing Jupiter and its rings and the Sun blasting onto our retinas, turning golden, then firey red before vanishing into a blast of white heat.

© Johan Persson, Billy Howle as Galileo's assistant and acolyte, Andrea. The sun and sun spots, blazing...

© Johan Persson, Billy Howle as Galileo’s assistant and acolyte, Andrea. The sun and sun spots, blazing…

But it’s the words that count and the message and that is unequivocal. Led by Brendan Cowell’s grizzled bear of a Galileo, scarcely able to contain his feverish excitement at his discovery of the stars and their moving positions around the sun whilst always emphasising the importance of empirical proof, this is a play that rams home the message about Reason and rational thought as pre-requisites for an understanding of our world.

© Johan Persson, Brendan Cowell as Galileo, Billy Howle as Andrea, his assistant

© Johan Persson, Brendan Cowell as Galileo, Billy Howle as Andrea, his assistant

With that, the necessity for doubt and questioning authority, Brecht is here pleading for ordinary people to open their eyes to their exploitation and adherence to a doctrine, led by the Catholic Church, that keeps them enslaved in poverty.

It’s also, in Wright’s words, something of a self-portrait of Brecht himself, having to negotiate difficult times – fascism and the Nazis – as Brecht had to negotiate his incarceration for heresy from the Inquisition. Compromise, Brecht argues, or real-politik, in difficult times is his perhaps questionable (self)-justifying answer.

But for us, now, a society in thrall to `fake news’, misinformation on the grandest scale and a population only too easily deceived, Brecht’s message is still a magnificent and timely wake-up call. And Wright makes sure it’s delivered sexily and very contemporarily.

Quite what Brecht himself might have made of it is anyone’s guess. Wright’s approach is a very `relaxed’ t-shirt and jeans style in which the acting stage is both the circular perimeter round which the cast run or stalk their prey, or the central floor amongst members of the audience lounging on cushions.

© Johan Persson, Bettrys Jones in the Carnival scene...

© Johan Persson, Bettrys Jones in the Venetian Carnival scene…

His busy-working cast don cloaks, swop genders and generally perform thumb-nail character miracles which don’t necessarily show them off to their best advantage but ensures the in-the-round production moves at a lightning pace.

With puppets providing inter-scene commentary, flashing lights and sound, this is a Galileo that may not please Brecht purists. But my gosh, it will surely captivate and inspire a Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking generation brought up to engage and enjoy the wonders of science and astronomy.

Here’s hoping the other parts of Brecht’s historical metaphor also get through!

Life of Galileo
By Bertolt Brecht Translation by John Willett

Mrs Sarti/Senator/Clavius/Dancing Girl/Vanni/Individual/Third Boy: Ayesha Antoine
Federzoni/A Fat Prelate/Cardinal Bellarmin/The Ballad Singer/Clerk: Jason Barnett
Galileo: Brendan Cowell
Andrea/A Monk/Dancing Girl/Pope’s Attendant: Billy Howle
Basket Maker/Sagredo/Philosopher/Inquisitor/Frontier Guard: Paul Hunter
Ludovico/Chamberlain/A Scholar/Pope’s Attendant/The Peasant: Joshua James
Senator/Cosimo de’ Medici/Very Old Cardinal/Dancing Girl/Ballad Singer’s Wife/Gaffone/First Boy: Bettrys Jones
The Doge/Court Lady/Little Monk/Second Clerk/Individual/Guiseppe: Alex Murdoch
Procurator/Cardinal Barberini/Mucius/A Monk: Brian Pettifer
Virginia/Mathematician: Anjana Vasan
Puppeteer/Poet/Court Lady/First Clerk/Ludovico’s Servant/An Official: Sarah Wright

Direction: Joe Wright
Design: Lizzie Clachan
Projections: 59 Productions
Music Tom Rowlands
Light : Jon Clark
Sound: Tom Gibbons
Puppet Direction: Sarah Wright
Dramaturg: Sarah Tipple
Movement: Javier de Frutos
Casting: Julia Horan CDG
Voice: Emma Woodvine
Associate Costume Designer: Catherine Kodicek
Associate Sound Designer: Dan Balfour
Jerwood Assistant Director: Taio Lawson

First perf of this production of Life of Galileo at Young Vic Theatre, London, May 6, 2017. Runs to June 24, 2017

Review first published on this site, May 17, 2017