Life of Galileo

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Brendan Cowell as Galileo and Billy Howle as Andrea – image by Alastair Muir

Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht – Young Vic

Brecht’s play is all about circles – the earth orbits the sun… maybe… science orbits the church, and the poor orbit the rich. Joe Wright’s production puts the Young Vic in the round too, the stage a walkway around a central space, where audience members have the unusual pleasure of lounging on the floor for three hours while the action hops, leaps and shuffles around them. Above them the sky: a planetarium-style ceiling on which the heavens are projected or their earthly equivalent, the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome.

Brendan Cowell is a bear of a Galileo, boisterous and domineering, capable of brilliant insight and teaching, and of making his daughter’s life a misery. Brecht’s writing is, of course, shamelessly didactic, and he is equally bold and historically shaky in his depiction of Galileo as the founder of worker’s consciousness. However, the play has eerie current resonance through its opposition of rational thought, and superstition protecting the interests of those in power. Galileo’s rallying cry “Stupidity can be defeated!” seems, alarmingly, to be entirely relevant right now.

The production cannot be faulted for lack of energy, but the staging depends on concepts that seem confused. Setting the play in a sort of planetarium may be neat, but the high tech projections are very un-Brechtian. It therefore makes no sense for the cast to sit beside the stage in illusion-busting Brecht fashion, especially as the idea is dropped halfway through. And we’re also in a club, at least sometimes, with a soundtrack from Tom Rowlands of the Chemical Brothers, and plenty of bouncing around from the cast. This gives an opportunity to stage a Vatican party scene, but adds little to the productions’ coherence.

The cast have a strong rapport that bears fruit when the drama is given space to develop, as they switch between their many roles. Billy Howie, as Galileo’s pupil Andrea, is gangly and compelling, and Paul Hunter is a master of the multiple cameo. Life of Galileo has much to recommend it but its staging, despite insisting otherwise, lacks the confidence to truly illuminate Brecht.