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FringeReview UK 2017

Life of Galileo

Young Vic

Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Multimedia, Puppetry, Theatre

Venue: Young Vic


Low Down

Joe Wright’s directs Brecht’s 1938 Life of Galileo at the Young Vic with Brendan Cowell. 59 Productions projects a planetarium above. It echoes the rest of Lizzie Clachan’s circular set below, a wood-crafted planisphere around which the audience are posted; at the centre a clutch of them sit. Jon Clark’s lighting illumines key moments with Tom Gibbons’ sound and Chemical Brothers Tom Rowlands’ score. Sarah Wright’s puppeteering pops out of spotlit hides. John Willett’s colloquial translation catches Brecht’s guttural. Contemporary casual meets the full monstrance of Cardinal-ware.


Brendan Cowell bestrides Brecht’s 1938 Life of Galileo at the Young Vic like a bearded Brecht, the part often noted for signs of self-portraiture as he rails against tyranny of all kinds. And it’s never been more needed. Joe Wright’s energetic direction keeps the stellar apples spinning, easy to see as apart from apples we’re treated to a spectacular shifting planetarium above, 59 Productions supplying clouds of nebulae swept with galaxies.


It echoes the rest of Lizzie Clachan’s circular set below, a wood-crafted planisphere around which the audience are posted like asteroids, whist at the centre a clutch of them sit on scatter cushions as actors move in and out and emerge amongst the audience. Jon Clark’s lighting not only punctuates, it illumines key moments and chamber shifts from frugal living to papal splendour or the literally dazzling 1632 carnival, light catching gold foil. Tom Gibbons’ sound whooshes a disharmony of the spheres at suitably high decibels; Chemical Brothers Tom Rowlands’ score caught up here, evoking luxury and raucous living.


It’s epic, not Brecht’s epic, but that too abrades brilliantly against it in the staging. The clarity of dialectic sings gratingly as it should, not least in Sarah Wright’s puppeteering appearances voicing rhymes popping out of spotlit hides. John Willett’s vigorously colloquial translation catches Brecht’s guttural, ideal here. Contemporary casual meets the full monstrance of Cardinal-ware.


The Galileo Brecht and Cowell evoke is an idealist of baulking energy whose mathematical clearing-away of crystal spheres and confirming Copernicus theorums with proven facts is only the half of it. In seeking to publish his finding in vernacular Italian he wants people at street corners to speculate on those moons of Jupiter he discovers, to question the whole authority that posits earth at the centre, and the Vatican centre of the earth. It’s nothing less than a revolution using planetary ones to achieve truth: it challenges authority. It cannot stand.


Celebrated and living within the Venetian Republic, Galileo leaves with young Andrea (Billy Howle outstanding here) with daughter Virginia (Anjana Vasan) for Florence for money and less protection. The boy Medici isn’t allowed to see though the telescope he’s constructed and his own inventions for irrigation (useful to the people Brecht hints) offset his shady dealings with the unique telescope, which Amsterdam’s been flooding markets with at a fraction of the price. Galileo’s sharp practice extends to politic shifts after Copernicus (he calls him Copper Knickers) is proscribed and he publishes nothing till the new mathematician pope is elected, Brian Pettifer’s querulous Cardinal Barberini, spectacularly robed from his underpants upwards, a kind of constructed sun. An ally; but one presented with some counter-arguments even he can’t parry. Pettifer’s roles from anxious friend to a man in pants pomp register worlds in miniature diametrically opposed to Cowell’s.


Cowell announces scenes, even cut ones (Wright delighted to make his production complicit with Brechtian alienation ‘ask Joe Wright about it..’) as he canters or prongs an apple with a fork to demonstrate to Andrea; Andrea standing in South America (tricky, gravity’s not discovered, he uses horizons). He’s clearly inspired as tutor, the kind in t-shirt and jeans you’d expect galvanising an unpopular subject in the 1970s. But he’s impervious to his daughter’s happiness too: he’s shrewd enough, but only where necessary to him.


Otherwise Cowell energizes, ad-libs to the audience he spins round (rather reversing the fixed sun-centre even Galileo posits), rasps exasperation to fools – primarily Joshua James’ suitor-role as Ludovico, ideal foil. James here moves from portraying a desolate petulance he’s made his own to a new chilling level of hauteur, an aristocrat who thinks he knows Galileo’s place. He smarms, finally dismisses Galileo, even Virginia in absentia, whose latter-day wedding dress takes on a spectral Miss Haversham, a wan peregrine moon to her father, or so it seems. Vasan expresses strength in reactionary church beliefs, her only defence after experiencing desire and desolation. It’s a quiet defiance Vasan shines in.


Cowell’s greatest energy though is reserved for his pupil. Howle’s superbly realised a petulant passionate, latterly fierce Andrea, who with a small band of disciples follow Galileo and are convinced that he’ll never buckle even to the Inquisition and die a martyr. The planetarium diffuses a grand interior dome centred with an eye that doesn’t wink. Galileo is indeed shown the instruments, though doesn’t know the Pope has forbidden their use. Galileo has other ideas. He’s no use dead.


The thrilling final revelations to a departing Andrea buck to and fro beyond Andrea’s sudden realisations of what Galileo’s been up to, to what Galileo’s been up to all along and which he’s never guessed these past thirty years. It’s an exhilarating call to arms as Galileo in Cowell sloughs off near blindness – the cost of secret workings – and calls down the future, and condemn sall deniers who work too wit repression. Contemporary parallels are as blinding as a revelation but here held off, as Brecht would wish, in the moment. And an apple tossed to a boy, the last gesture of the play, tells us everything.


Jason Barnett shines as laconic lens grinder Federzoni and various prelats, Paul Hunter in roles from Basket Maker to a chilling Inquisitor. Ayesha Antoine enjoys most of all Mrs Sarti. Andreas’ mother, continually reminding Galileo of the human cost he inflicts on Andrea. It’s unlikely we’ll see another Life of Galileo with the scale and reach of this for a long time, though perhaps for no better reason than we’re almost alienated from Brecht at a time when at least looking up and asking questions is what keeps us on our toes, when people talk of strong leaders.