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Life of Galileo review at Young Vic, London – ‘absorbing and intelligent’

Brendan Cowell and Billy Howle in Life of Galileo at Young Vic, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

It’s not always easy to see the stars in London, but Joe Wright’s engaging new production of Brecht’s Life of Galileo makes us consider the wonder of the above.

Wright and designer Lizzie Clachan have transformed the Young Vic into a planetarium. There’s a circle in the centre of the room in which audience members can recline on cushions on the floor, forming a human constellation; suspended above this, there’s a great concave disc on to which the night sky is projected.

Galileo changed the way people understood their place in the universe. He confirmed Copernicus’ theory that the earth revolves around the sun. He unlocked doors. He unlocked minds.

Looking a bit like a roadie, Aussie actor Brendan Cowell plays him in an understated manner; he’s calm, confident, persuasive, inspiring, a man of ambition. He’s also a man of contradiction, not above nicking other people’s inventions, and, for such a rational, enlightened man, he was a bit of a git to his daughter. In jeans and a T-shirt, he stands in marked contrast to the gowned and girdled men of the Church who seek to suppress his ideas.

Wright conveys the thrill of scientific discovery. Galileo strides around the circular stage as Jupiter swoops into view above him and music from the Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands thumps and throbs. It’s invigorating and suitably awe-inducing.

Occasionally, the room erupts. There is glitter and dancing, a surreal carnival scene featuring a large papier mache head. During each scene break, the house lights flick back on, pulling us back into the room.

Brecht’s play is as much about the nature of belief as it is about the cosmos, but Wright doesn’t force the production’s relevance on to the audience in the same way as the Donmar Warehouse’s current production of Arturo Ui. It trusts the text.

Life of Galileo is a long play – complete with lengthy, intricate speeches – but Wright’s production is never a slog. The ensemble playing is tight, with Billy Howle particularly strong as Galileo’s young student Andrea, who struggles to reconcile himself with the fact his mentor allowed himself to be silenced by the Church.

The projections – by 59 Productions, the team behind the visually dazzling City of Glass – put a Doctor Strange spin on things that, while initially cool, feels a bit overblown. The continual swish and whizz actually comes to feel like a distraction. But Wright’s production is more than just planetarium-Brecht with a cool soundtrack; it’s richer, weirder and more potent – theatre that fires the mind.

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Absorbing, intellectually stimulating and strikingly designed staging of Brecht