The Young Vic’s versatile main space has been transformed yet again; this time we are sitting under designer Lizzie Clachan’s huge white disk, a canvas for projection stretching over the audience, most of them sitting on seats with a few lying on the floor or sitting on cushions in the middle of the stage. They look up at the projected night sky, glimpsing into the universe.
This is Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo, directed by acclaimed film director Joe Wright and starring Brendan Cowell as the man himself who returns to the Young Vic stage after his performance in the sell-out hit Yerma. The play tells the tale of the man who learned the truth about the universe and then had to keep it to himself due to the opposition of the Catholic church.
On a circular wooden path the actors orbit around the space, pacing to deliver the verbose text. The Life of Galileo is truly a mammoth play; it runs for nearly three hours with two acts, even with several cuts – one of which is explicitly announced by Cowell and is greeted with great laughter. But, even though the production might drag a little here and there, it is truly an entertaining evening involving lively puppetry, priests dancing in a club, and a very trippy carnival scene.
The mismatched design of DIY wooden set pieces and slick projections by 59 Productions create a kooky atmosphere, filled by an ensemble that brings relentless energy to the stage. Cowell’s Galileo is in jeans and a t-shirt, a passionate nerd, a rebel at heart, but also a hopeless optimist. His character is likeable and, eventually, truly tragic, but above all, he is human in all his complexities, his excitements, fears, and both his heroic and cowardly actions.
Billy Howle as Andrea is excited and refuses to rest, his character arc structured carefully in his performance. Ayesha Antoine blazes through the space every time she sets foot in it. But what sticks with you the most is how cinematic the experience is: the harsh cuts between scenes, the vivid costumes, Tom Rowlands’ music, and the long, stretched moments of staring into the universe all show Wright’s eye for filmic composition. At one point the Sun enters the stage, and as the seats tremble with vibrations I am reminded of how small we all are and how little we know still.
Mildly political, bravely playful, and perhaps a little too long, The Life of Galileo is Brechtian in a very contemporary and fresh way, resulting in a stargazing experience that is both delightful and surprisingly unsettling.
Life of Galileo is playing at the Young Vic until 1 July.