London is currently experiencing a mini festival of immersive productions of Bertolt Brecht plays. Hot on the heels of the recently opened revival of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which transforms the Donmar Warehouse into a 1930s Chicago speakeasy and at times conscripts the audience into the action, the Young Vic now stages Life of Galileo as a kind of planetarium installation, with a vast white dome dominating a space that has the audience wrapped around the entirety of a circular wooden platform, with some of them seated on cushions on the floor inside it.
Meanwhile, that dome offers an ever-changing succession of variously beautiful and extraordinary projected images, courtesy of 59 Productions, a creative company who are exerting an increasing influence on London theatre productions, with their work also recently also dominating the design of An American in Paris and the astonishing City of Glass at Lyric Hammersmith.
Here is a playground for science and ideas to be demonstrated and tangibly felt as well as spoken about, and the high price to be paid for challenging the orthodoxy of the time, as the church found its authority challenged by the newly emerging discoveries of Galileo in 17th century Italy. It comes at a time when, of course, the newly installed Trump regime is itself challenging scientific facts, like those around climate change, as never before. No wonder The Guardian's Michael Billington is quoted on the publicity material for this production commenting in a feature earlier this year, "If one masterwork seems more timely than ever, it is Life of Galileo -- I can't think of a more prescient play for our times."
So the play has a timeless resonance as well as contemporary urgency, and Joe Wright's frequently electrifying production makes those ideas and the man behind them spring to a bursting theatrical life. A lot of that is due to the tremendous performance of Australian actor Brendan Cowell in the title role. Though on press night he appeared to have put himself under some vocal strain with his efforts so that his voice frequently breaks between registers, it also helps to make him feel compellingly present -- and presently vulnerable.
Dressed in casual gear of tee-shirt with a picture of Winnie-the-Pooh holding balloons and jeans, and with a bushy beard that's longer than the hair on his head, he's a bearish man with a growl that occasionally yelps into a broken falsetto; he's joined by an impressive human as well as puppet cast. Given director Joe Wright's parents were founders of Islington's Little Angel Theatre, it's a neat tribute to their legacy that he incorporates puppets here; but the show regularly combines their tiny gestures with far larger spectacles that at times turns the theatre into a giant club night, too.
It's a rich evening, pulsating in ideas as well as movement, that only dips briefly towards the end of the first act.
What the Press Said...
"The production forces Cowell into a state of constant restless mobility that leaves him hoarse by the time he gets to Galileo’s final plea for the duty of the scientist to “lighten the burden of human existence."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This isn’t the Gospel according to Bertolt, you see – it’s an entirely welcome invitation to think."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Joe Wright's take on Brecht is inventive and absorbing."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press