YVONNE LYSANDROU is less than convinced by a gimmicky production of The Life of Galileo
The Life of Galileo
Young Vic Theatre
THE LIFE of Galileo, written after Bertholt Brecht had fled Hitler’s Germany, was a perfect subject matter and inspiration for his revolutionary drama.
The 16th-century polymath’s struggle with the Catholic church had close parallels with Brecht’s own battle against theatrical orthodoxy and conservative thinking as he created the new dramatic form of epic theatre.
Galileo’s great discovery of planetary motion faced the deep ignorance, fear and implacable hostility of the church and, as Brecht’s Galileo says when trying to convince it that Aristotle was wrong and that the Earth is not at the centre of the universe: “I’ll take them by the scruff of the neck and I’ll drag them to the telescope … even they are subject to the seduction of truth.”
The battle of Brecht’s protagonist has resonance not only in Germany of the 1930s, where the agonised struggle of reason against fanatical dogmatism provided the fundamental historical parallel for Brecht’s play, but also in our own age of “alternative facts.”
The production’s director, film-maker Joe Wright, was attracted to Brecht’s play for this very reason.
“We’re in a post-truth society,” he has said, “where the maintenance of an ideology is more important than the truth.”
Brecht’s experimental theatre, which also challenged the Aristotlean unities of time, place and action, would also seem to be a good fit for Wright, well known for his postmodernist experimentation.
But this is not the case. Brecht’s drama can of course be tampered and meddled with — his theatrical method is not preserved in aspic — but neither should it be reduced to gimmicky tricks.
Brendan Cowell, in jeans and T-shirt, leaps and bounds around the stage as Galileo, jabbering about the planets. A convincing audition for Dr Who but, in this context, the freneticism irritates.
The circular stage has an inner circle composed of members of the audience lying on cushions, mainly looking embarrassed and perplexed. Wonderful and powerful images of planets revolve above our heads but the majesty of the projection by 59 Productions is undermined by the trite music by Tom Rowlands of The Chemical Brothers.
As a film director, Wright is renowned for his visual artistry but, in accentuating externally dazzling images, he too often forgets the substance of the material he is dealing with — as was the case with his interpretation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
A brilliant display of depthless pizzazz, it completely missed the heart and tragedy of Karenina and had more in common with his stylish Chanel adverts.
Perhaps Wright is too clever for his own good. As Brecht stated: “Sometimes it’s more important to be human than to have good taste.”