Life of Galileo, Young Vic, London, review: Brendan Cowell is magnificent in the title role

Paul Taylor
Australian actor Brendan Cowell is magnificent in the title role

The Young Vic’s auditorium has been reconfigured as a sort of planetarium for this highly compelling revival, directed by Joe Wright, of Brecht’s play about the conflict between free inquiry and official ideology and about the ethical responsibility of the scientist. Lizzie Clachan’s design is modelled on a planetary ring system. Some of the audience sit amongst scattered cushions on the floor of a central pit while overhead astonishing images of the cosmos (including the boiling surface of the sun) are projected onto a huge dish by the video maestros, 59 Productions. The cast perform amongst these punters but the principal acting area is a narrow circular wooden walkway that encloses the groundlings (so to speak), with the rest of the audience seated round the whole thing.

A sense of dislocation – a playing around with centre and periphery – is apt for a piece about a scientist who confirmed Copernicus’s heliocentric theories and demoted the earth from it supposedly starring role in the universe, incurring the wrath of the Catholic Church. The set-up here allows the production to achieve both a bracing informality (at the start of both halves, the actors mix freely with the public to the pounding music of Tom Rowlands of The Chemical Brothers and a very unforced handling of the alienation devices whereby it reminds us that we are watching a construction designed to make us think rather an emotionally indulgent slice of life.

Bright lights click back on, with the effect of shrugging bathos, when the scene changes are announced. There’s puppetry (directed by Sarah Wright) for the verse introductions. The intellectual farce of the scene in which Paul Hunter’s hunched, querulous philosopher refuses to look into Galileo’s telescope because the instrument itself must be defective, if it shows what logically and according to Aristotle cannot be there, is certainly heightened when the evidence of the scientist's eyes is plain for the audience to see up above.

The Aussie actor Brendan Cowell is magnificent in the title role. Paunchy, bushy-bearded, full of impatient lust for research, he jumps around in his T-shirt and jeans as if his pleasure in the use of reason were an implacable bodily urge. He's hoarse with enthusiasm and sardonic incredulity and everything seems to spring from the gut – joy when a pupil grasps a new concept, fierce awareness of the Church’s vested interests in social inequality. There’s a sensuality behind his thinking that the new Pope (Brian Pettifer) hopes may be his downfall as we learn in the excellent robing scene where the Pontiff's opposition to the Grand Inquisitor's vilifying of Galileo weakens as each successive layer of ecclesiastical finery is laid on him. He is right to the extent that the scientist recants on being shown the torture instruments.

Brecht came to think that his initial conception (that Galileo did so in public so that he could continue to work in private as an act of undercover resistance) was inadequate. Here, in speeches from the 1947 version written in the terrible glare from Hiroshima, Cowell's Galileo is a mass of requisite contradictions as he tasks his former pupil Andrea (Billy Howle developing eloquently from hero-worshipping boy to disillusioned colleague) with smuggling the now-completed Discorsi out of Italy. The self-contempt is sprinkled with the old canny calculation (he watches its effects on Andrea) when he castigates himself for having betrayed both science and mankind in failing to stand up to the Church and thus giving rise to the scientist as pygmy inventor who can be sold to the highest bidder.

In an age when truth finds itself trumped anew by ideology, the debate feels very fresh and is conducted with great immediacy often on the diagonal in this artfully conceived and memorably cast revival. Recommended.