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Orbits review at Drayton Arms Theatre, London – ‘thought-provoking’

Edmund Dehn in Orbits at Drayton Arms Theatre, London. Photo: Wally Sewell
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Fleeing Nazi oppression in the 1940s, Bertolt Brecht travelled to America where he would adapt his biographical epic Life of Galileo with the collaboration of famed actor Charles Laughton. Effectively dramatizing that fraught period, Wally Sewell’s Orbits is a thoughtful examination of hypocrisy, cowardice and conviction.

Though originally commissioned for the 2014 Ealing Festival, the play feels intensely relevant at a time when objective facts are increasingly up for debate. Sewell’s smart, multi-layered text draws insightful comparisons between the historical scientist and the modernist theatre maker, while charting Brecht and Laughton’s challenging, changing relationship.

Director Anthony Shrubsall’s stripped-down production has a measured intensity which compliments the dense script while alluding satisfyingly to Brechtian technique. Each movement here is tightly drilled, mirroring the shifting dynamics of power as the characters circle and spar, comparing egos and achievements.

Peter Saracen’s prim, twitchy Brecht struts about the space as stiffly as an automaton, but breaks down when challenged, squirming and whimpering in frustration. By contrast, Edmund Dehn’s sombre, rational Laughton spends much time seated, exuding a quiet weariness which disguises his own hidden insecurities.

Phil Emerson’s stark lighting effectively delineates the text’s overlapping layers, with house lights illuminating conversations while tight spots focus in on moments of storytelling. At one point, Dehn delivers a captivating tale of squabbling Aztec gods beneath a blistering orange glow, while Saracen quietly fumes in his shadow.

Overhead, a banner proclaims Brecht’s motto “the truth is concrete.” The play, though, repeatedly – and fascinatingly – challenges that assumption.

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Thought-provoking character piece that tracks the fine line between genius and vanity