Within the eclectic and diverse offering of the London theatre scene, I always appreciate when a pub theatre decides to host a play that draws from the repertoire. This demonstrates that the pleasure and duty of keeping the tradition alive is not only down to the playhouses and that classical culture can be shared everywhere. I'm convinced that there are always new ways to see 'old stuff' and learn from it, whilst reaching an audience that isn't necessarily familiar with the mainstream channels.
This has been the case for Wally Sewell, a playwright who was commissioned, in 2014, a self-referential play on Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo for the Ealing Autumn Festival. Invited to write a Pirandelloesque script on what Galileo thought of how Brecht had depicted him, Sewell found an even more self-referential insight in the relationship between the dramaturg who fled Nazi Germany for his Marxist ideas and the closeted Broadway actor Charles Laughton. Bringing his contribution to the English version of Life of Galileo, the latter hoped to find in Brecht's genius a help to revive his career, whereas Brecht saw in his collaborator a much needed link to the American theatre scene. Little is known about their personal friendship, except for the fact that, before heading back to Berlin, Brecht wrote for his friend a special book of poems.
The script's pattern of Orbits evokes the rounds of a boxing match. A bell announces the beginning of every scene, with the two characters initially stood on the opposite corners of a square set and their backs turned to each other. The first scene opens with Galileo's interrogation. He's sat on a chair centre stage, wearing a bright red gown, and he's struggling to bring up reasonable arguments to support his defence in front of the Inquisition. A skinny man with round sunglasses is staring at him in silence and, when he finally speaks with a German accent, we understand that he's Bertolt Brecht himself (Peter Saracen) and that he's assisting to Laughton's (Edmund Dehn) rehearsal of a scene from Life of Galileo.
Nonetheless, Orbits maintains its serious and inquisitive tone throughout the play, echoing a number of issues which are particularly actual in our 'era of post-truth' – as someone has described these recent years. How important is to stick to the truth? What value do we actually give to it? 'The truth is concrete', says a large banner on the stage's back curtain – referring to one of Brecht's favourite quotes. 'The truth is clay in your hands' protests Laughton against the accusatory tones of his companion. The truth, in fact, seems to be always
Under the wise direction of Anthony Shrubsall, and supported by Phil Emerson's discreet lighting, the drama shifts between the scientific and political, but leaves enough space for some personal considerations. Thanks to Dehn's velvety voice, and despite Saracen's inconsistent German accent, the performance gains intensity in the intimate auditorium of the Drayton Arms Theatre and raises an important moral discussion on how prone human beings are to revisit the truth when the use of an alternative fact is more convenient.
Review by Marianna Meloni