Brecht that buzzes with in­ven­tion

Financial Times USA - - ARTS - Sarah Hem­ming

Life of Galileo

It’s not just the plan­ets that are on the move in Joe Wright’s fizzing new pro­duc­tion of Brecht’s mighty clas­sic about the ground-break­ing sci­en­tist. Ev­ery­one’s in or­bit on Lizzie Clachan’s wooden walk­way of a set that makes a dough­nut of the au­di­to­rium, with some au­di­ence mem­bers re­clin­ing on cush­ions in the cen­tral hole. Around them loops the raised act­ing area, round which the cast zip like lit­tle moons; around that is the re­main­ing au­di­ence, seated in con­cen­tric cir­cles like the rings of Saturn. And at the cen­tre of it all is Bren­dan Cow­ell’s ex­cel­lent Galileo. A pug­na­cious bar­rel of a chap in T-shirt and jeans, he hur­tles round the room, ex­hort­ing us to think, to won­der, to gaze in awe at the canopy of stars pro­jected (by 59 Pro­duc­tions) above us on a huge plan­e­tar­ium-like disc: a ma­jes­ti­cal roof fret­ted with golden fire.

If you think Brecht is dull, this is any­thing but. Rough-and-ready, buzzing with in­ven­tion and driven by a throb­bing sound­track from Tom Row­lands of The Chem­i­cal Broth­ers, this is a stag­ing that vividly com­mu­ni­cates the thrill of knowl­edge. Equipped with John Wil­lett’s col­lo­quial trans­la­tion, it shifts nip­pily through the story of the Ital­ian poly­math who scru­ti­nised the heav­ens, con­firmed that Coper­ni­cus was right and so drew the un­wel­come at­ten­tion of the In­qui­si­tion. Wright makes light work of Brechtian “alien­ation”: ac­tors slip in and out of roles and Cow­ell him­self announces the scenes — in­clud­ing those that are cut. This makes it easy to ac­cept the play as a con­struct and fo­cus on its driv­ing ques­tions about truth, power and or­tho­doxy.

Cow­ell’s Galileo emerges as a man way ahead of his time in his de­ter­mi­na­tion to open minds: an in­spi­ra­tional teacher and gal­vanis­ing pres­ence. Cow­ell con­veys his ped­a­gogic zeal, but also his op­por­tunism (pinch­ing the tele­scope de­sign) and his emo­tional clum­si­ness ( ca­su­ally blight­ing his daugh­ter’s fu­ture). A fine en­sem­ble shape-shift around him: Billy Howle is par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive as his pupil An­drea, who is dev­as­tated when his in­spi­ra­tional men­tor ap­pears to cave in un­der pres­sure.

The pro­duc­tion doesn’t quite get across the cold ter­ror of the In­qui­si­tion or the chill of Galileo’s re­can­ta­tion and it loses fo­cus and mo­men­tum to­wards the end. But, at a time when it is less the spin­ning of the plan­ets and more the spin­ning of the truth that con­cerns us, this vig­or­ous plea to think for our­selves earns a small con­stel­la­tion of stars.

To July 1, youngvic.org

Alas­tair Muir

Off-cen­tre: Bren­dan Cow­ell as Galileo, left, and Alex Mur­doch

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