Brecht that buzzes with invention
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
Off-centre: Brendan Cowell as Galileo, left, and Alex Murdoch