Friday, 26 May 2017

Review Life Of Galileo

A magnificent performance at the centre of a Brechtian universe brings a German classic into focus for Francis Beckett. 

Life of Galileo 
by Bertolt Brecht

On Different Planets

The Young Vic under artistic director David Lan encourages its directors to use its space in unexpected ways.

With Galileo, director Joe Wright and designer Lizzie Clachan have filled the centre circle, where you expect to see only actors, with some of the audience, seated on cushions. No doubt this has the incidental advantage of maximising the potential box office.

Galileo, a 17th century academic and scientist, passes off the telescope as his own invention in the Venetian Republic.  Yet with the telescope he then makes a true discovery which counters popular belief and sets him up in opposition to the powerful Roman Catholic Church.

Much of the action of the play takes place on a narrow raised platform around the centre circle, and sometimes the actors thread their way through the members of the audience on the cushions.

They use this part of the audience as props, handing out pieces of paper which they retrieve a few minutes later. When an audience member sneezed, the actor speaking at the time added “Bless you.” to his lines  During the interval the 11-strong cast engage the people seated on cushions in conversation.

Some of the cast are also seated on the cushions. This is a modern dress production, so you don’t know who are audience members and who are actors until the actors stand up and speak. The entrances and exits are used for the occasional spectacular set piece.

Before the play begins, Brendan Cowell’s Galileo has to run and dance around the raised platform for quite a long time.  I am not sure it was wise of the director to make his leading actor do this: the night I saw it, Mr Cowell sounded a tiny bit breathless in his first few scenes.

Sometimes, even with the impressive planetarium-style design, projections by 59 Productions  and pulsing music by the Chemical Brothers' Tom Rowlands,  I felt the director was getting carried away by clever gimmickry, but if you can’t experiment with that great theatrical innovator Bertolt Brecht, who can you experiment with?

And it does emphasise the relevance and immediacy of this most political of plays, translated by John Willet.

For Life of Galileo isn’t about Catholicism, though the Catholic Church comes out of it pretty badly. It isn’t, as some academics have suggested, a play about Marxism. It’s exactly what Joe Wright says it is: “At the heart of the play is a questioning of authority… It’s about power. It questions the way power maintains itself through prescribing an ideology and dogmatising an ideology.”

The great strength of Joe Wright's production is that everything he does emphasises that central idea, underlining that it’s as relevant now as it was at the time of the Inquisition or when it was written in 1938 and then revised in 1947. During those years  the Nazis were in power in Germany, Stalin’s terror in full swing in the USSR and then the nuclear bomb unleashed on Hiroshima.

Brendan Cowell is a magnificent Galileo. He offers us the selfish, self-assured, almost childish impatience of genius for much of the play, but at the moment the Inquisition comes for him, all the cockiness drops away. 

He is instantly diminished. It prepares us for the moment when he confesses that they did not torture him.  They only showed him the instruments of torture. That was enough for Galileo. It would certainly be enough for me.

A fine production of one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century is certainly worth a green light.

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