The Young Vic’s current production of Life of Galileo sees politics and science combined on the London stage. Brecht’s play about a garrulous scientist who bloodies the nose of the doctrinaire establishment while theorising about class struggle, has been given a sumptuous treatment by Joe Wright and his team. Feted as the latest in a long line of innovative productions by the Young Vic, [1] Life of Galileo does not disappoint: the show involves everything from puppetry to a lightshow of the planets. But this show is more than a grand night out, and Brecht’s serious intellectual purpose is given plenty of room to breathe.

Life of Galileo is a profoundly political play. Galileo, in Brecht’s hands, is a rationalist who examines both science and society, rather than solely the former. The narrative is as history tells it: the scientist turns his eyes to the sky and deduces that, contrary to dogma, the earth is neither fixed nor at the centre of the universe. It moves, and travels around the sun. These discoveries challenge the core beliefs of seventeenth-century Christianity, and as such Galileo announces: “Today is the tenth of January, sixteen hundred and ten. Mankind will write in its journal: Heaven abolished.”

Both Galileo and his enemies perceive that his ideas have significance beyond science and religious dogma. Galileo tells Cosimo de Medici, his child patron, “It is not the movements of a few distant stars that make all Italy prick up its ears, but the news that opinions hitherto held inviolable have now begun to totter.” Galileo’s telescope, which can be bought for a few coins on any street corner, is an instrument that reveals a reality that challenges the received dogma of the State. It is a tool of social awakening, allowing the masses to see with their own eyes that the sky does move, contrary to the Church’s continued insistence that the heavens are fixed and immutable. Brecht’s Galileo is part-scientist, part proto-Marxist. Indeed, at times Brecht seems to equate Galileo with Marx himself: his telescope a tool for mass social awakening to the realities of the social order in much the same way that Marx’s ideas were utilised as a tool for social change in the twentieth century.

Galileo warns that scientists must be wary lest their discoveries are co-opted by those in power as new tools to oppress the people. This concern echoes the ideas of the Frankfurt School – a group of left-wing intellectuals founded in the interwar period that included Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer – with whom Brecht was involved socially. These intellectuals, like Brecht, fled from Nazi Germany to America, and they remained acquainted in their new (and, for many of them, temporary) home. But Brecht was impatient with the overly intellectual stance of some of the theorists. He called them “Frankfuturists” and critiqued their reluctance to get their hands dirty with political activism or party politics.[2] The character of Galileo echoes this side of Brecht’s intellectual character: he is fallible and gets his hands dirty in the “gutter” in order to achieve his aims. When this disappoints his allies, he reminds them that society is the problem and not him as an individual. If he did not dirty himself then he would be prevented from carrying out his higher purpose of scientific discovery, which is his method of challenging the establishment. It is this that makes Galileo impatient with the notion of “heroes”.

Joe Wright, the director of Life of Galileo, is most familiar to audiences as a film director. Something of the glamour and surprise of his Anna Karenina (2012) finds its way into this production, which takes a similarly unconventional approach to the stage. In Anna Karenina, Wright used a dilapidated theatre as the setting for the film. The auditorium was disguised as the setting for diverse scenes. One scene saw a horse race take place across the stage, while another saw the space filled with wildflowers. For Life of Galileo, Wright has worked with theatre designer Lizzie Clachan to create a stage that runs in a circle between two audiences: one seated in the traditional ‘round’ and the other clustered into the middle of the stage. In a typical Brechtian dash of metatheatrics – which is also on display in the Donmar’s current production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (on which you can read culturised’s thoughts here) – the central audience are directly involved in the action of the play.

Above the audiences, the entire theatre is covered with a domed awning onto which beautiful footage of the universe is projected. The play opens with the invention of a telescope that is capable of bringing the heavens into a focus never achieved before in the history of the world. The wonderful, mind-expanding nature of this moment in history, when people saw things that had “never been seen before”, is made tangible by means of this immersive visual experience.

Brendan Cowell dominates the stage as an indefatigable Galileo. He is by turns hulking and energetic – immovable at his books one moment and, the next, pounding around the circular stage in a mania over his discoveries. Cowell starts the play stripped naked to the waist, indicating that he is playing a man whose flaws are not hidden. Galileo is self-interested and domineering. He fails to take advice when it is freely given, and he is dismissive of the women who make his life possible. But when he is confronted with his failures, Galileo freely admits them and turns the criticism outwards onto political and social structure of Italy: “unhappy the land that is in need of heroes”.

While Life of Galileo is focussed on the central character, the supporting cast of this production are superb. Life of Galileo is famous for having an enormous cast, and there are fifty two characters in this production at my count. As a result each actor is playing up to seven parts. The technical virtuosity of the cast, who are able to slip in and out of character with not only ease but energy is, in itself, hugely impressive.  Billy Howle does a moving turn as Galileo’s apprentice, Andrea. Alex Murdoch is sweet as the Little Monk. Anjana Vasan puts in an admirable performance as Galileo’s daughter. Joshua James and Brian Pettiger, who worked together on Platanov, at the National in summer 2016, are reunited in this production as Galileo’s pupil and his academic procurator in Padua.

Joe Wright’s Life of Galileo is intended to be dazzling and it absolutely is. Some critics have decided that this production is over-produced but I respectfully disagree.[3] In their day, Brecht’s plays tore up the theatrical rule book: they broke the fourth wall, combined song and speech and drew attention to their own theatricality. If any theatre should be loud, fast, and complicated it is Brecht’s. Furthermore, I do think that the showiest aspects of this production, such as the light show of the planets, do help both to convey the world-altering brilliance of Galileo’s discoveries and strengthen the ever-present political subtext.

Life of Galileo is showing at the Young Vic until the 1st of July. For more information and tickets see here.

[1] Dalya Alberge, “Cosmic Take on Brecht’s Galileo perfect for post-truth world”, Guardian, 7 May 2017.

[2] Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss, (London: Verso, 2016): ‘For Brecht, in particular, the Frankfurt School perpetrated a bourgeois slight of hand by posturing as a Marxist institute while at the same time insisting that revolution could no longer depend on insurrection by the working class, and declining to take part in the overthrow of capitalism. [..] The men whom Brecht called dismissively the ‘Frankfurturists’ were aloof from party and had never sullied their fists in political struggle.’ 77-8

[3] Michael Billington, “Life of Galileo Review”, Guardian, 17th May 2017.