‘Reason’s gentle tyranny’: Life of Galileo review

Play: Life of Galileo
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht
Venue: Young Vic Theatre
Director: Joe Wright

 

A director best known for loyal screen adaptations of classic literature, Joe Wright now switches two sides at once: loading an Adrenalin shot into the theatrical canon. His reworking of Brecht’s Life of Galileo is brash, loud, funny and makes a maverick of Galileo. The imperious Catholic Church is hiked up as the high horse, happy to play ‘the man’ keeping him down.

You might expect Brechtian casts to be alienating; an avengers group that Spiderman-scale that 4th wall. And we get some of that, in audience micro-interactions when the actors navigate the stage’s middle section, the theatre’s best seats laid out in lounge cushions around their feet. It’s also in the self-conscious scene intros which go to pot in Galileo’s absence.  Wright never makes these reflexive moments uppity, or arts-clique congratulatory. Instead, they are funny and self-deprecating. High theatre concepts are made to serve an engaging and important narrative, even if the revised content verges into science lesson/PSA territory. Success is gleaned in equal parts from a hugely talented cast, a bass-pumping soundtrack, and an innovative 360 degree staging.

The set is more bared down than a deliberately-unfinished Hipster hangout. There’s a thin ring that forms a walking platform. A few boxed-off vignettes around the edges. Some scaffolding in one corner, doubling as a Venetian tower. That’s about it. Among exposed steel and mortar, it’s the orchestration that stands out.

Life of Galileo at the Young Vic. Photo by Leon Puplett Projections by 59 Productions.

Set plan of Life of Galileo at Young Vic Theatre. Main stage is the ring around the centre, some scenes take place on upper rung. Projections shot onto on concave dome overhead

Orbit is closely held around Brendan Cowell’s Galileo. He’s like a leaner, Australian Mark Addy, and his enthusiasm for theorems and reason is infectious. In the first act, his star is in unchecked ascendancy – which has a counter-effect of Galileo not seeming like a real person. We’re taken in, like his followers, by the myth of his genius. But the second act challenges his unstoppable force with the immovable object of the Church. Then he becomes more human.

Until Act 2, we’re satisfied with a stellar supporting cast. There’s Galileo’s young protégé, played by Billy Howle, who ages boisterously as the play progresses. Howle has more than a little Malcolm McDowell about him. His loud and impetuous speeches are a few steps away from goading the Pope to ‘come and get one in the yarbles!’ He’s electric; physical comedy rolling off him through cross dressing and childish fervour at his master’s ideals. Paul Hunter, as head of the grand inquisition, is a more established pair of hands. He’s worked with Wright before, on last year’s Pan, and reminds me a lot of Toby Jones (a good thing on all counts).

In the mouths of these players, Brecht’s script gains new relevancy. Particularly in Galileo’s breakdown, as he loses faith in the general public’s essential rationality. Recent election results (before GE17 of course) might prompt us to despair in similar ways. The great helio-displacer here agonises over misdirected effort: how scientific progress for the sake of it just leads to more complex machines of corruption, used to further segment society. He argues science should operate with a conscience.

But his own moral compass fails him. He admits his confession was motivated by avoiding torturous pain. The grand inquisitor’s threats led him to label his own, proven theories as heretical. This reason dethrones one of pragmatic survival, an explanation hopefully theorised by his followers as a masterstroke, letting Galileo covertly publish the Dialogues in the long term. Instead he maintains it was simple self-preservation. Galileo returns to his faith in ‘the gentle tyranny of reason’ – of the mundane triumphs of everyday science, where the public cannot fail to accept theories accompanied by irrefutable proof.

Like the big G’s Copernican research though, there’s some key things that de-centralise the magic of the production. The Planetarium-style projections are cool in themselves, but jar with the bared down visuals of the surrounding action. Their segments swirl through space, through galactic dust-clouds and Jupiter satellites. While it’s visually impressive and hints at Galileo’s vast theoretical reach, they feel like science museum promos. Albeit with a banging synth and bass soundtrack, courtesy of The Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands. The soundtrack and sound design work wonders for the minimalist 360 set, usefully indicating a larger world; but its part in the astral projections is amplified too much, further exposing their anomaly.

These effects recall Wright’s lesser works, like the uneven film adaptation of Anna Karenina. Overall though, Life of Galileo infuses a newfound energy and relevance into a previously inaccessible script, not to mention a controversial period of history where religion and science were much more evenly matched. Its exploration of the moral responsibility of reason is by turns enthusing, troubling, and necessary.

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“What a Dump”, a review of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’?

Venue: The Harold Pinter Theatre
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by James MacDonald

Being sat up in the Gods has its benefits. Especially in the case of Edward Albee’s 20th century classic, where a sole set sits stoically for the three-hour, behemoth duration. A God’s-Eye view of James MacDonald’s version of ‘…Virginia Woolf?’ also seems especially fitting. George (Conleth Hill) and Martha’s (Imelda Staunton) living room is squared off by chequered tiles, leaving a sunken shag-pile carpet section in the centre. As the sadomasochistic couple drive needles into each other’s soft spots like pin-cushions, their marital parlour games appear like orchestrated manoeuvres: as in Chess, or ‘total war’ as George puts it. The people/pieces reveal their moves from above. Here, battle-lines are drawn in lino and the shagpile-square-cum-sparring-pit.

The 60s living room with doll-house figures striding about it calls to mind David Lynch’s Rabbits. And there’s a Lynchian quality to seeing Albee’s masterpiece with a live audience, whose laughter becomes more unsteady as the piece plunges deeper into cruelty and trauma. It begins to sound like a laugh-track gone wrong; ill-timed, individual members singled out. MacDonald’s version is a particularly funny one, making the break from drinks-party to deathly lament in Act Three even more jolting.

‘[George] made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving me, and must be punished for it.’
Martha, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Another curiosity of sitting in the highest circle: you’re afforded a privileged view of some characters’ most exposed moments. E.g. Laments to a Godless sky, profiles of relaxing reclines on the sofa, floored drunken splay-outs like crime scene murder outlines. Despite there being only four characters, the number of caricatures, wall-to-wall dialogue and sheer decibel-ic intensity ensures the room always feels full.

Of the two married pairs, it’s the elder who steal the show. Staunton bestows an animalistic desperation to Martha’s ‘braying’. Despite having Bouffant hair à la Liz Taylor, she foregoes glamour. She truly ‘busts a gut’, ‘howls it out’; George’s remarks on her claws and brute strength barely seem like exaggerations. Staunton peacock-struts about the stage like an ADHD meth-addict gone cold turkey. Her voice must be ravaged by the end (how does she do this every night?): she drags it through high pitches of peril, mockery and fury. There’s a mirthless edge hidden deep within her laughter. Her almost schizophrenic switches in character give Staunton full-reign in range-deployment. One minute she’s croak-cooing in childish baby-talk, the next minute banshee-screaming, before morphing into chaise-longue seductress. Oh, and her soliloquy at the beginning of Act Three is an absolute knock-out (cueing up pin-drop silence from the previously riotous crowd).

‘we take our tears, and we put ‘em in the icebox […] and then we put them in our drinks.
– Martha, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

How to compete with that? Conleth Hill as George does a pretty good fucking job. His voice is like a cross between Alfred Molina and Bradley Whitford in The West Wing. At times, his hunched gait and crumpled suit – coupled with some ill-informed pontificating – conjures a more depressing version of Ed Balls, or a pouting Trump in a world where he had no inheritance with which to bleach himself upon public life. Hill brings a slapstick comedy to George that I’ve not seen before. His dramatic handball swings, elaborate arm crosses and mime-like posturing give George a clownish physicality, embodying his wife’s insult-moniker.

George’s clowning soon loses its lightness of course, his faux-playful snapdragons aimed at Martha standing in for poison-darts. Their home in New Carthage burns down just like the old colony. This is a slow-mo car crash, where the audience’s rubbernecks are held by a ceaseless brace. It is exhausting enough to watch – performing it must come with a real risk of ‘busting a gut’.

‘Am I losing pages?’, a review of The Treatment

Venue: Almeida Theatre
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Written by: Martin Crimp

Almeida Theatre is attracting some of Britain’s brightest acting talent. It’s not hard to see why. While the likes of Andrew Scott and Ben Wishaw, recent recruits in other productions, are here absent, the aura of quality and electric potential is certainly not.

Almeida’s theatre space itself strikes an interesting balance between big spectacle and the atmosphere of a cosy, closed environment. The Treatment benefits from this cross-purpose. It is a play about cities and the myriad characters that haunt their streets. The writing and theatrical space here manage, like all modern cities, to be intimate and anonymous, lonely and alienating at the same time.

Which city do we focus on? Somewhere in America, but it doesn’t matter much. ‘Metropolis’ is enough. It’s size and spectacle is suggested in futuristic sets and transient spaces clad in grey minimalism; further amplified by fragmented writing where characters often talk over one another, and staging which places walk-on extras in most scenes.

As a result, the background is rarely allowed to rest. A Japanese restaurant, a dumpster alley, a Tube station: all locations teem with other human life. Figures flit by in private conversation, on the way to meetings, mini-dramas glimpsed in seconds-long vignettes. We are constantly made aware that the main stories focused on are arbitrary, to an extent, just a handful among many others.

Which narratives do we pay attention to? Which ones bring us the most pleasure? How do you define that pleasure – is it the most salacious, dramatic or meaningful personal stories that are the most worthy? While this isn’t a story about the press, or even celebrity culture, it contains messages that ring true in the real world, echoing across an increasingly sensationalist public sphere.

‘A true story over which we have complete control’
 – Jennifer, The Treatment

The city is the real star, the facilitator for endless human drama. The Treatment seems to refute the city’s possible neutrality though: it is repeatedly implied as a corruptive force, where mental health issues are made into performance art for the street. We bear witness to soliloquising, car-boot-salesmen-cum-artists; to frantic policemen imploring the public for aid. The city provides a stage, but no guiding hand.

Narrative-wise, the focus lies on authenticity and reproduction. We follow two producers (Show-runners? Studio executives?), whose job is to mine true stories from the public, for televisual retelling to a wider audience. Except, some stories need a little embellishment. Jennifer (Indira Varma) asks testimony-provider Anne (Aisling Loftus), who volunteers her own story of marital abuse, if it wouldn’t be more ‘believable’ if there were more struggle. Or more conflict, more violence, etc. In augmenting eye-witness testimony for dramatic purposes, The Treatment calls into question all personal narratives: how much do we keep secret? What emphasis do we give to elements in our own stories? Is it still fundamentally true if we exaggerate for effect?

A slippery slope ensues. Everyone’s narrative is questioned television the producers. As the play rolls on, we are less and less sure of each character’s back story and intentions. Is Anne telling the truth about being held hostage by her husband? Does producer Andrew really have heartfelt feelings for Anne? Is Simon, ostensibly Anne’s husband, who he says he is?

The trustworthy, genuine exception that proves this deceptive rule is a blind taxi driver, who freely admits his deficiencies but struggles on regardless. He does not seek recognition or validation, surrendering himself (and his passengers) instead to the whims of universal chance. There is something of Tiresias – the blind oracle in the Odyssey – about him. It’s as if we descend into his eternal night between scenes too: the Almeida’s lighting vanishes completely during transitions, plunging the audience into unnerving total darkness.

Ben-Onwukwe-Taxi-Driver_The-Treatment_credit-Marc-Brenner

Ben Onwukwe as the wise, blind Taxi Driver

‘We don’t often meet real people here. The realness was burned out of us’
– Andrew, The Treatment

A few minor quibbles. The lack of any television or film cameras, when this is supposed to be a story about filmic adaptation, seems an oversight. At the least it’s a missed opportunity: plenty of interesting material could have been harvested in putting Anne in front of the camera. The adaptation of her story is denied flesh here. Instead, we are informed in reported dialogue of the film’s construction and subsequent success. The Treatment also ended on a bittersweet note for me. The final, climactic scene, is one of the play’s most effective: the narrative symbols seem to distilled and fully coherent for the first time, while the visual spectacle is sincere and spine-chilling[1]. And then it ends. Whether I was slow on the uptake, or just need a repeat viewing, on first time around it felt like the meat of the matter had just been served up. This unresolved hunger after a series of dynamite lines, fine acting and elegant staging deserved a more resounding conclusion.

Book tickets here.

[1]  I’m trying to give away as little as possible.

‘Nowadays the world is lit by lightning!’; a review of The Glass Menagerie

Play: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Venue: Duke of York Theatre, London

‘From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been…evolved.’
— Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species

Springing from a simple set, floating on water and empty space, John Tiffany’s version of The Glass Menagerie manages to bewitch. Through simple forms it elegantly spotlights the beauty and tragedy of Williams’ soul-searching words. We are greeted with simple props – a grilled set of fire-escape stairs receding up to infinity, a faded gold gramophone, a matching sofa and separator, and not a lot else for the bared-down cast to revolve around. The lighting is warmed by memory for the most part, occasionally broken by reality’s harsh moonlight.

This harder blue serves to isolate the narrator, Tom (Michael Esper), who is understood to represent Williams himself in this, his most autobiographical of plays. Tom is the only character who even sparingly adheres to the world as-it-is. He is granted 4th-wall-breaking soliloquys, where he acknowledges the untruth of his (Williams’) retelling. Tom and his family mostly inhabit closeted worlds of their own making. As his mother hysterically decries – ‘you live in a dream’. She may as well be talking of herself.

Dream-worlds here take many forms. Tom and his sister use ‘the movies’ as cesspools of escape, despite their mother’s flagrant disapproval. For her part, Amanda (the mother, Cherry Jones) constructs a reality where her crippled daughter Laura (Kate O’Flynn) might find a budding husband. Amanda’s escapism is hard-fought, forged in the harsh context of single parenthood in the Great Depression. Laura’s fantasy pivots around her glass menagerie of animal figurines, nurtured in a glowing box to which she frequently retreats her gaze. It is a small, simple world that she can control.

Tiffany presents a tableau of deception, drawn along both family fault-lines and inner divisions, where characters lie to themselves just enough to get by. The outside world, fittingly, is jet black – a non-entity, walled off by denial and Tom’s incomplete memories. Tiffany has the characters use phantom props (silverware et al suggested by gestures in the air), loosing themselves further from the real world’s concreteness.

“Time is the longest distance between two places.”
– Tom, The Glass Menagerie

                The first act sets Cherry Jones’ mother figure, Amanda, centre stage. Her rounded Southern syllables fill the theatre with the weight and pace of molasses. While Laura ritually winds her gramophone, Amanda’s motor-mouth needs no winding up. She is resourceful, magnetic, and loves her children entirely too much. Her offspring’s troubled faces are cowed by the light of her clinging, tender expectations.  Like Blanche DuBois, Amanda convinces herself that a poetic Southern drawl and tireless bluster can conjure a tolerable world. Predictably, she is painfully mistaken.

The Glass Menagerie’s second act eventually tears down those imaginary walls. But before a traumatic finish, there is a beautiful scene of whole-hearted catharsis where the forever scarred real world is briefly plastered over. It is Williams setting right his own mistakes. Haunted by leaving his own crippled sister to die, he lets Laura be reunited with her childhood love. Gentleman caller Jim (a bashful Brian J. Smith), teaches her to dance, while she introduces him to her glass figurines. It is a powerful, rose-tinted moment, where a playwright can atone for his sins, where theatre’s redemptive artifice shines brightest: showing itself as a prism/vacuum where the clock can withstand being turned back. Williams grants his lost sister a moment of exquisite happiness, glimpsed in the refracted glass of fantasy.  While events may conspire against her (in Laura’s reality-bound counterpart and the play’s devastating climax), it is in this dance that Williams pours his heart, and it’s where I’d prefer to leave mine.