Sunday, 26 February 2017

Review Orbits

The clash between a famous actor and a notorious playwright in a new drama is relevant to today's politics, even if reviewer Francis Beckett disagrees with some of the play's conclusions.  

by Wally Sewell

From Two Different Planets

Wally Sewell’s Orbits is an interesting new play for the post truth era.

Across the top of the set is a sign which says, in thick capitals: THE TRUTH IS CONCRETE.  “But the truth isn’t concrete” says actor Charles Laughton in the play.  “It’s clay. It’s putty.” No, says playwright Bertolt Brecht, it’s concrete.

In an age when politicians’ half-truths have become outright, brazen lies, it’s a point worth making. A thing happened, or it didn’t happen. Barack Obama was either born in the United States of America, as he said; or he wasn’t, as Donald Trump claimed.  He was. That’s the truth.

The play imagines the private talks between the two men while Laughton was rehearsing Brecht’s Galileo in New York in 1947.

The louche, comfortable, gay, English actor begins by hero-worshipping the spare, ascetic German Marxist playwright, and ends up despising him; Brecht starts out despising the portly and rather right wing product of an English public school, and ends up pathetically needing his approval.

Mingled skilfully with this relationship is the relationship between Galileo and his inquisitor.

The play opens with Laughton and Brecht doing some improvisation, to help Laughton get the feel of Galileo and identify Galileo with his own life.  (Pedant’s note: Laughton’s school was the Jesuit-run Stonyhurst, where his schoolmasters would not have made him bend over to be beaten; he would have had to hold out his hand instead. I am rather sorry I know that.)

They are imagining the moment of Galileo’s apostasy, when he abjectly confesses for fear of being tortured. And the play ends with Brecht himself, denying his socialism before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

It’s a clever idea, well executed, and with a serious message for the Trump era, when truth is under siege.

Like any two hander, the play only works if both characters work. Wally Sewell understands the languid, worldly Laughton rather well, and actor Edmund Dehn puts in a commanding performance, helped with a voice that sounds as though he gargles with claret.

The weakness is Brecht, and I do not know if the fault is with Sewell, director Anthony Shrubsall, or actor Peter Saracen. But the sneering, didactic, neurotic, self-righteous hypocrite I saw portrayed last night is not the man who wrote Life of Galileo and Mother Courage and her Children, and who founded the Berlin Ensemble.

The charge of hypocrisy, which this play levels at Brecht, does not stand up, in my opinion.  Though Brecht was critical of Galileo’s climb-down, his decision to say what HUAC wanted to hear – that he was not a socialist – was consistent with his view of Galileo’s behaviour.

Galileo disowned what he knew to be true rather than be tortured.  Why not? He’d have said it under torture anyway – most of us, I suspect, would say anything at all under torture, just to get them to stop. I know I would.

And Brecht told HUAC he was not a socialist, when he was.  Why not? If he’d said anything else they might have stopped him getting his plane home the next day, where he could get on with his life and speak the truth.

It’s a weakness for me. However that does not impede an interesting, thoughtful well-acted evening at the theatre which deserves an amber/green light.

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