Review: Life of Galileo by Young Vic

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Following his successful production of A Season In The Congo in 2013, award-winning director Joe Wright returns to the Young Vic with Bertolt Brecht’s classic play Life of Galileo. A challenging piece to adapt, the play has managed to remain relevant in today’s unstable world of fake news and unfounded knowledge rampant across the Internet.

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In this new production, Wright’s version focuses heavily on turning it into an epic, every scene turned into a visually striking spectacle. Lizzie Clachan’s design transforms the Young Vic into a theatre-in-the-round, the play’s action takes place around the audience on a circular platform, as a gigantic round screen overhead projects 59 Productions’ scenes of galaxies, painted palace ceilings and ominous, dome-shaped roofs with a single eye peering down, while the Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowland’s epic soundtrack. Despite the prominence of illusion, the production still paid homage to Brecht’s concept of the Epic Theatre, where the illusion of the theatre is occasionally revealed, each scene change was announced and surprisingly detailed puppets were used to inform audiences of the contents of the next scene.

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The sheer scale of the production is impressive enough to convince anyone of Brecht’s genius, and despite being distracting at times, mostly serves to enhance and emphasise the script, with excellent stage blocking that always allowed an unrestricted view from all sides. Brandon Cowell, fresh from his stint at the Young Vic’s Yerma, does a marvelous job of portraying Galileo’s eccentricity and commitment to his work, enthusiastic and engaging in his demonstrations of his hypotheses.

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Cowell is a force of nature, at times light-footed as he runs around the stage in excitement, while always exuding an unwavering strength that grounds his character as a man of science. At times delivering lengthy, quiet monologues powerful enough to convert a monk to the religion of science, to his swansong expounding on the nature of an unquenchable thirst for knowledge that will never be killed, Cowell’s Galileo is a star. In his hands, Galileo becomes almost a messianic figure who has come to deliver the gospel of the stars, and it’s easy to see how he charms and convinces his brethren of followers, a celebrity and inspiration to all, a fitting lead anchoring the life and soul of the production.

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Of course, Cowell’s co-stars, despite orbiting his larger-than-life character, do not fall into his shadow, but rather, support his performance. Anjana Vasan’s performance as Galileo’s daughter changes from oblivious to pious, committed and filial, maturing and blossoming into a woman dedicated to her father’s life while sacrificing her own simple dreams. Paul Hunter cuts a menacing figure as the Inquisitor leading to Galileo’s downfall, while Brian Pettifer’s Cardinal Barberini is oddly mesmerising to watch as servants clothe him from ordinary man to one swathed in regal garb. Billy Howle’s hot-headed but inquisitive Andrea is a delight, his innocence and rage coming through in equal amounts.

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Besides the natural drama that arises from the narrative, Wright’s production also draws out Brecht’s humour in generous doses. In the second act, an over the top carnival scene shows off Anna Barcock and Annette Herold’s innovative costumes that fit the astronomy theme perfectly while remaining a sight to behold, and a gigantic puppet head version of Galileo is dragged out as the cast sings an aggrandized version of Galileo’s ‘bible-busting’ life. Throughout the play, cast members are expressive and easily find the light in their characters’ exaggerated movements; there’s never a dull moment in this version of Life of Galileo. 

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Life of Galileo is a surprisingly appropriate choice of play, about the never-ending battle of science against faith, or rather, the external forces that attempt to crush one’s beliefs. Today, the quest for truth has become more pertinent than ever, and Galileo gently suggests the ultimate triumph of reason via irrefutable evidence. Science and logic will find a way amidst the most dangerous of oppressive forces, and Galileo acts as a source of hope for the weary truthseekers out there. Wright’s production swathes Brecht’s script with a seductive, epic guise that will certainly make it that much more accessible and attractive to youths. In the beautiful clarity of the universe projected in the final scene, there is an immense sense of satisfaction as Galileo’s colossal ambition pays off.

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Performance attended on 27/5/17 (Matinee)

Life of Galileo plays at The Young Vic till 1 July. Tickets available here

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