‘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.


‘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.