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Review: Life of Galileo, at Young Vic

Big ideas and great effects as the Young Vic becomes part planetarium to trace the life of mathematician and physicist

25 May, 2017 — By Howard Loxton

Life of Galileo at the Young Vic. Photo: Leon Puplett

BERTOLT Brecht’s play about Galileo places empirical science against blind faith and authority. It traces the life of the mathematician and physicist from his opportunist appropriation of the telescope, using it to support the idea of a heliocentric, not an earth-centred universe, through forced recantation to smuggling out his discourses beneath the nose of the Inquisition.

Director Joe Wright and designer Lizzie Clachan make the Young Vic part planetarium in a concentric staging. Most of the action takes place on a circular pathway surrounding some of the audience on cushions.

The atmosphere feels more like a pop concert: a big bearded roadie in a T-shirt stirs up excitement. He announces each scene, then miniature puppetry delivers the verse that tells its content: a neat alternative to Brecht’s placards.

The big guy, in fact, is Galileo. Brendan Cowell makes him a excited enthusiast, whether in character or outside it a charismatic teacher who carries you with him, but also in true Brechtian fashion placing emphasis on the argument, on understanding what is happening.

Galileo’s friend Sagredo (Paul Hunter) warns him of the danger of seeing the truth, how Rome will react if he says the Church got it wrong but Galileo leaves the safety of Padua and the Venetian Republic for Florence.

When mathematician Barberini becomes Pope, Galileo thinks he’ll be safe. But seen enrobing with the Inquisitor (ironically also played by Hunter) Brian Pettifer’s Pope becomes more the churchman with each added layer of vestments.

It’s a splendid performance from Cowell, matched in feeling and clarity by Billy Howle as his student Andrea, now disillusioned by his teacher’s weakness.

Scenes of carnival and papal parties become confusing but there are stark effects too and huge overhead projection gives us painted domes, a plain one with the Inquisition’s eye ever watchful at its centre and visions of the night sky, of blazing sun spots and magical nebulae that are almost overpoweringly spectacular.

It’s got both big ideas and great effects.

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