Isobel Laidler stars as Virginia, Galileo's daughterJohannes Hjorth

Brecht is not an easy playwright; his Life of Galileo is not an easy play. I happened to see this play many, many years ago at the National Theatre, when I was far too young to appreciate it. My lasting memory was its length and the fact I fell asleep.

This production at the Corpus Playrooms is ambitious, to say the least. Projections abounded, a relatively small cast covered an extensive list of parts. The plot is fairly self-explanatory: it tells the life of Galileo, from his peddling of the telescope in Venice to his conflict with the church over heliocentrism.

Amidst a cacophony of sounds, images and voices, Adam Mirsky, as the eponymous astronomer, shone. A phenomenally difficult role, he handled the part deftly, from the extended monologues to frustrated, repetitive arguments. He carried himself with an authority way beyond his years, ageing over the duration of the play until he was a crippled, disappointed old man at the finale.

The rest of the cast gave somewhat mixed performances. Andrea, Galileo’s assistant and pupil (Xelia Mendes-Jones), and Virginia, his daughter (Isobel Laidler) were both strong, with polished and developed characters. Joe Shalom and Elinor Lipman proved themselves to be strong actors with the ability to switch characters with ease. I was, initially, dubious; it seems this was a weak directorial decision, though, with caricatured and annoying characterisations carried out rather well by the actors.

Similarly, many of the other parts - Adam Butler-Rushtonand’s Ludovico and Nathaniel Hess’ Cardinal Barberini come to mind - were incredibly frustrating, as was some of the staging. Attempts at humour fell flat with much of the scripts jokes lost or underplayed. Stooped, stereotyped monks and academics, with endless pacing and repetitive humming, added little and detracted somewhat. Some scenes left me confused and a bit of polishing is definitely needed: lines were fluffed or lost and scene changes, particularly the technical cues, conspicuously went wrong.

Johannes Hjorth

Not all was lost, though: a few clever emphases drew sneaky comparisons with Cambridge academia, anticipating the student audience in a manner many productions don’t. Galileo’s explanations of physical phenomena - using buckets of water, tables and chairs, and utilising the mostly neglected white circle inscribed on the stage - were neatly staged and altogether engrossing.

Projections, which constituted much of the production’s design, were often distracting. Ever-changing imagery could have easily been replaced with stills; footage of modern scientific achievements and educational videos felt entirely pointless. A few star charts were effective, though, and the projection of setting was an elegant shorthand in a minimalist staging.

The whole production struck me as filled with strange, at times incredibly poor, decisions: the costumes were mostly garish and out of place, with a few undeniably quite horrific (the Pope in a kimono!?). The music and sound design was inconsistent, flitting between Faure’s Requiem and Bob Dylan, when one or the other would have sufficed. Limited set, however, was used elegantly and beautifully atmospheric lighting design was captivating.

This is a long, dense play - but it’s worth the perseverance. Mirsky as Galileo, the undeniable centre of the show, shows real promise, as do some of the supporting cast, orbiting him elegantly like the planets and the sun (heresy, I know). Although it’s deeply flawed in some areas, the opportunity to see a performance of Brecht’s masterpiece about knowledge, science and religion is worth the price of admission alone.

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