Young Vic Theatre Summer 2017
Inventive, exciting and illuminating, this new version of Brecht's Galileo turns what is too often done as a static and talky play into a vibrant celebration of the sheer thrill of doing science and of doing theatre.
With just about everything done right, credit must be shared among John Willett for a clear and natural-sounding translation, designer Lizzie Clachan and projections developer 59 Productions for a stunning and play-serving visual experience, director Joe Wright for keeping everything moving fluidly while guiding his actors to effective ensemble playing, and leading actor Brendan Cowell for a magnetic and dynamic performance that generates energy all around him.
Brecht's portrait of Galileo focuses on his conflicts with the Catholic Church. (Briefly, his astronomical discoveries threatened theology, since they contradicted the Bible and Church authority, since they disproved what the Church taught with presumed infallibility.)
In laying out the conflict, Brecht allows himself some naughty satire, as when some Cardinals explain that since they can prove logically that Jupiter's moons can't exist they have no need to look through a telescope to see that they do.
But for the most part he is surprisingly respectful and even sympathetic to the Church's fear of science, allowing the case for preserving the established sense of order to be made effectively before shooting it down.
It is those serious debates that have sometimes bogged down previous productions, but here they are staged with a passion and energy that reflect their importance to the debaters.
This production is done in the round, with most of the action on a circular runway surrounding a central pit where some audience members sit, occasionally surprised to discover actors among them. The whole is overlooked by a planetarium-like dome whose astronomical projections generate in the audience some of the characters' awe at discovery.
The in-the-round staging forces everyone to be on the move constantly, setting a general tone of restlessness and action that becomes the key to characterisations and performances.
Brendan Cowell's Galileo begins the play on the edge of manic hyperactivity, so charged up is the character by his discoveries so far and his prospects for more, and the passage of decades and numerous setbacks only subdue his enthusiasm without destroying it.
The exuberance that drives Cowell's performance does not keep him from capturing all the subtleties of Brecht's characterisation. If Cowell's Galileo is always learning, he is also learning about himself, and the actor carries the man through self-discoveries, self-disappointments and self-forgivenesses.
(There is a bit of an idealised self-portrait in Brecht's Galileo, as a man of high principles wise or wily enough to sacrifice principles to survival when appropriate.)
With Brendan Cowell onstage almost continuously and generating the energy of every scene, and with everyone else playing Everyone Else with an average of five or six roles per actor, few others are given the opportunity to make much impression.
As Galileo's chief pupil Andrea (among others), Billy Howle shows us the boy growing from na´ve acolyte to challenging near-equal. Anjana Vasan as Galileo's daughter, Ayesha Antoine as a sceptical neighbour and Sarah Wright as a scene-setting puppeteer each have strong scenes or moments.
At three hours the play can't possibly sustain its high energy levels throughout, and things do begin to drag in the last half-hour or so. A carnival scene doesn't work, and Brecht too abruptly and belatedly remembers that he's a Marxist, forcing on Galileo an extended, unprepared-for and irrelevant lecture on how science is worthless if it doesn't serve the masses.
If those late lapses allow an exciting production to drift away into anticlimax, they don't spoil the evening which up to then serves the playwright's vision and the audience's entertainment equally brilliantly.
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Review - Life of Galileo - Young Vic Theatre 2017