‘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.