Block rocking' beats from The Chemical Brothers' Tom Rowlands set your pulse racing (or give you a headache) as you file into designer Lizzie Clachan's ingenious circus-arena-cum-planetarium. The Young Vic is almost unrecognisable in this modern take on Brecht. Trance-like video projections of the universe on the huge domed ceiling captivate half the audience who lie on cushions on the floor beneath. The rest sit in a continuous loop around a narrow track of circular stage. The actors greet everyone matily and spend much of the three-hour play trying not to trip over the paying customers. It's a fun, immersive experience and director Joe Wright just about pulls off the insane logistical challenges of his complex but exciting production. Any danger of the supine audience nodding off to the hypnotic images and sounds is counteracted by blindingly bright and sometimes deafening scene changes.
Wright's technical wizardry is unsurprising as he's best known as a film director (for example, Atonement and the forthcoming Winston Churchill drama, Darkest Hour). Aussie actor Brendan Cowell is the hands-down star of the show - specifically, he's the sun around whom all the many minor characters revolve. His energetic, Hipster-ish Galileo talks almost non-stop and shouts himself hoarse in frustration at the world's refusal to accept his groundbreaking scientific observations, the key one being that the earth and planets in fact revolve around the sun. His ideas aren't only epoch-changing scientifically; they subvert society's entire moral framework.
Cowell's engaging Galileo may be an intimidating intellect - the father of science, no less - but he dresses down in trainers, well-worn black jeans and a T-shirt with Banksy's flying balloons printed on the front. With his big beard, short haircut and more than a hint of beer belly, he wouldn't be out of place sipping a skinny latte or micro-brewery ale in a shabby-chic-warehouse conversion near London's tech hub, Silicon Roundabout. He's down-to-earth, approachable, and has the faintest of Australian accents. The action takes place in the 1600s, and not all the dress is modern. Although it probably hasn't changed much in centuries, the evil Catholic Cardinals' fusty costume is memorable, especially when the excellently creepy Brian Pettifer appears in nothing but his underpants and is put into his ridiculous full regalia, garment by garment, by his two priest-manservants.
Joe Wright's parents founded Islington's Little Angel puppet theatre, and a delightful bonus of this production is the funny little puppets who enact a short poem introducing most scenes, operated skilfully by his sister Sarah Wright. They are a nice touch given that a major Brechtian theme is the manipulation of people by those in power. Knowledge, in this gripping story, is a dangerous threat to the religious and political authorities in Galileo's Italy, so it's no wonder they want to put him back in his box, under house arrest for heresy. In today's world where the president of the United States bans journalists and denies the facts about climate change, Brecht's play about truth-telling is as relevant as ever.
Cowell gives an admirable portrayal of a man with the world on his shoulders, although I wish he'd swigged his juice bottle more often than he did to relieve his dry, sometimes squeakily raspy throat. But that painful voice adds to the persuasiveness of his performance. The supporting cast of ten - all of whom play multiple roles - also give strong showings, even if they only appear at times in a dizzying whirl of carnival-esque activity around and among the audience. Special applause should go to Billy Howle, who has the tricky task of playing Galileo's bright pupil Andrea as a ten year-old boy and later as an adult. Life of Galileo ticks all the boxes both as a dazzling entertainment playfully staged by talented players and their newsworthy director, and as a thought-provoking science and philosophy-fest.