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BWW Review: LIFE OF GALILEO, Young Vic

A timely revival of the Brecht epic continues the 2017 Young Vic season with a vengeance. Joe Wright directs a wholly modern production, which also features music composed by Tom Rowlands of The Chemical Brothers.

When we first meet him, Galileo Galilei is living in Padua and working at the university, but also taking private students to earn extra money - though he often turns them away, preferring to work on his research with protégé Andrea (his landlady's young son). After chancing upon a Dutch invention, the telescope, he gathers evidence to back up the Copernican Theory of a heliocentric solar system: the Earth orbits the Sun, not the other way around. This goes against traditional Church teaching, eventually drawing the attention of the Inquisition and forcing Galileo to decide where his loyalties lie.

This new interpretation of the text sees the cast in modern dress to go with the choice of soundtrack, which reinforces the timelessness of the play's themes. The use of puppets (controlled by Sarah Wright) neatly links back to the 17th century, as we see Galileo in traditional dress - these short interjections are also great tools for scene transitions.

The production is performed in the round, which immediately feels poetic given Galileo's life work. It isn't a traditional setup by any means - instead of a stage there is an extra seating area on the floor (complete with cushions), leaving relatively little space for the cast to work with. However, this unique performance space makes it more dynamic, as actors circle the seating area, use various platforms around the side and walk amongst patrons sat on the floor. As well as Lizzie Clachlan's design, full marks should go to Wright's direction as there doesn't appear to be a bad seat in the house.

59 Productions have worked on this production to make some absolutely stunning visuals. The auditorium becomes almost like a planetarium, as the night sky, the Sun, and many other things besides are projected onto the ceiling. The very last sequence, in particular, is breathtaking.

There are a great many parts in this play, which are covered admirably by a fairly small cast. Anjana Vasan sparkles as Galileo's religious (and slightly dim) daughter Virginia, generating a lot of laughs as well as sympathy when Galileo's decisions irrevocably affect Virginia's life. Billy Howle is also fantastic in a number of supporting roles, but particularly as Andrea. He shows a real growth in character, from bemused boy to enthusiastic scientist.

Brendan Cowell in the titular role ensures that Galileo is the Sun with all the other characters in orbit around him; his passionate performance sets the play alight. Galileo is a flawed hero, which only makes him more identifiable - he is not some lofty, martyred genius, but a man who just wants to survive. Cowell's innate sense of humour works perfectly with this role, especially as he breaks character to make the scene announcements.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, because the Church felt it couldn't possibly be seen to be wrong, all such revolutionary work was suppressed and denied - not unlike 'fake news' and the rejection of experts that is becoming more commonplace now. As is his intention, Brecht gets the audience thinking about the subject matter ("Unhappy is a land who needs heroes", says Galileo), but thanks to Joe Wright and his team this production is incredibly engaging throughout.

Life of Galileo is at the Young Vic until 1 July

Picture credit: Johan Persson

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From This Author - Debbie Gilpin