Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo at the Young Vic is a spectacular intellectual game. It’s an act of creation brought about by smashing together a theatrical revolutionary with a cosmological revolutionary, and director Joe Wright (whose films include Pride & Prejudice, and Atonement) delights in the parallels raised by this unlikely pairing.
Life of Galileo was written in 1938, but its central theme – the danger of speaking truth to power– is acutely relevant today. Brecht was interested in the tumult surrounding the beginnings of modern science, and how the Church sought to protect itself against a new source of authority. Around the same time as the play, he wrote a novella about the heretical Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for his Copernican beliefs (and some other stranger ideas besides). Bruno is a looming absence in the play, and for its protagonist he’s both an inspiration and a cautionary tale.
Brendan Cowell’s Galileo is brilliant and mercurial, but tethered to the real world; not just by his commitment to evidence, but by his ties to friends and family, and his grubby need for money to finance his research. His groundedness is essential because as much as this is a play that celebrates an era-defining thinker, it’s also a defence of the pragmatic.
The climactic confrontation between church doctrine and observable fact – where Galileo is threatened with torture if he does not publicly denounce his heliocentric beliefs – plays out according to the historical realities rather than narrative expectations, and the results are more interesting for it. Reacting to Galileo’s recantation, one of his disciples observes, “Unhappy is the land without heroes.” But the great man counters, “No, unhappy is the land that needs heroes.”
59 Productions – the mesmeric projection crew currently dazzling audiences at the Lyric Hammersmith’s City of Glass – have outshone themselves here, with a domed-ceiling that shifts from dance club to duomo, from panopticon to planetarium. Its depth and the extent to which it dominates the visual field means that a survey of the moons of Jupiter gives the viewer a thrilling sense of motion, while an examination of sunspots merges with screaming bass to approach the Burkean sublime. The excellent music is provided by Tom Rowlands of The Chemical Brothers.
The play is too long, too speechy, and too didactic; a largely one-sided argument, that musters too little emotion to persuade an audience to entirely overlook these shortcomings. And yet, the lasting impression is quite special, and the conclusion is upliftingly optimistic.