Life of Galileo at the Young Vic review ****

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Life of Galileo

Young Vic, 21st June 2017

My Brechtian education continues apace. Who would have thought that until a couple of years ago I hadn’t see any Brecht plays at all and frankly wasn’t that interested having been put off by the great man’s reputation. What a klutz I was. Turns out that our Bertolt is just the man for me.

Director Joe Wright (the go to man now for cinematic literary adaptions – and responsible for the best of Season 3’s Black Mirror) makes a number of incisive observations in the programme. Notably he was struck by just how emotionally rich this play is. So was I. You expect Brecht to load you up with ideas and get the grey matter putting a shift in, but you don’t expect to empathise with the characters. Brechtian epic drama requires a distancing between action and audience. That is still achieved, but here however I was also properly drawn in to Galileo’s struggles.

This in part reflects the committed performance of Brendan Cowell. Even before the play “opens” he is pumping up the audience along with the pounding beats of Tom Rowlands’ score (he of Chemical Brothers fame). Through the popularisation of the telescope in C17 Padua and Venice, the observation of planetary motion that supported Copernicus’s theories, the protection accorded to him in Florence, the promulgation of his ideas in vernacular Italian, his years of silence, the summoning to Rome, the torture by the Inquisition, the recantation of his theories, and the final secret dissemination of his ideas, Mr Cowell is a constant and imposing presence. He is just so physically full of belief.

This is ultimately a play about ideas, and specifically pits the rationalism of Science against the dogmatism of the Church. But this production also delivers an emotional wallop and explores Galileo’s (not historically accurate) relationship with his daughter (played by Anjana Vasan, whose advantageous marriage is sacrificed to her father’s certainties) and his pupil Andrea (played by Billy Howle, whose worship turns to disillusionment and finally to advocacy).

This being Brecht though there was still plenty of¬†Verfremdungseffekt to keep you on your toes. A song and dance routine, some excellent puppetry from Sarah Wright to accompany each scene’s introduction, some interesting costume choices, plenty of doubling or more of roles, a “disappearing” scene, aggressive lighting and sound. Best of all though was Lizzie Clachan’s set, in the round, with a circular runway enclosing brave audience members, topped by a dome on to which the techies at 59 Productions (last seen by me working their magic in City of Glass at Lyric Hammersmith) projected cracking images of the cosmos. Our very own planetarium with punters acting as planetary bodies. This is not the first time that I have seen a set designed by Ms Clachan that has prized function as much as form.

Once again I doff my cap to the translator here, John Willett, for providing such a clear and involving rendition of the text. In particular the big speeches are perfectly rendered especially the best of the bunch in the penultimate scene. This is where, I understand, in 1947, Brecht revised the play, goes beyond technological determinism and questions the objectivity of scientific rationalism and the dangers of the Enlightenment project. This chimes with the Marxist Critical theorists in the US at the same time as Brecht (before he went back to East Germany) whose ideas had been shaped by the horrors of WWII. Most of this whizzes over my head but it is still powerful stuff. Remember people a bit of Marxist dialectics isn’t going to turn you into a raving Commie despite what some would have you believe. The nature of Truth in human discourse plainly never goes away.

Sorry veering off again. I just like this combination of drama, theatre craft and ideas. This production is nearly over but I crave the next fix of Brecht. In particular, whilst I loved this “big” production of Life of Galileo, I do hope one day to see a more stripped back version by way of contrast.

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