By showing us how the collaboration between Laughton and Brecht might have happened, this creative team of Orbits have thrown a sparkling and secure rope bridge between the few facts we know and a very usable form of truth, just as the best historical novelists do. Along the way they force us to reflect hard as well on troubling and important questions about the nature of scientific and dramatic truth, and on how malleable both can and always will be in the face of human contradiction and self-deception.

OrbitsBertolt Brecht and Charles Laughton are hardly unknowns, but their connection and ambiguously powerful working relationship remains in the shadows. This play takes its departure from their collaboration in the last years of the Second World War, when Brecht was a more or less mendicant writer in Hollywood exile, and Laughton a star whose reputation was fading as fast as his garden in Pacific Palisades was eroding and falling into the sea.

Brecht had arrived in the United States with a draft of The Life of Galileo under his arm, but it was Laughton’s interest in it that led to its substantial revision and translation into English, culminating in the first performance in New York City in 1947 with Laughton in the lead. Just a couple of months earlier Brecht had returned to Germany to enter the final phase of his career running the Berliner Ensemble.

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For Brecht an introduction to Laughton offered the chance to get his most recent work staged under the patronage of a real, if diminished, star actor of stage and screen; whereas for Laughton the role promised a new chance of Broadway success now that he was far less bankable on celluloid.

Wally Sewell’s drama, divided into three scenes and spread over three years, re-imagines what may have taken place in the private discussions between the two, and tries to explain why their improbable relationship was both formative for them, and emblematic of important discussions that go to the heart of the meaning of the play Galileo itself.

The themes that recur most frequently in this two-hander are, perhaps inevitably, interrogation, betrayal and the nature of science, just as they form the heart of the original. Formally, the play takes the shape of a series of interrogations: there are two improvisations in which Laughton-as-Galileo wilts and cracks under the silence and scorn of Brecht-as Inquisitor.

OrbitsOn the face of it this is a device for introducing the themes of both this play and the one that inspired it, but we also learn a lot indirectly about the characters of the two protagonists. Then in the second half the tables are turned, and Laughton gets to interrogate Brecht, first on the claims of his theatrical method as science and then as a stand-in for the McCarthyite prosecutor.

There is a sharp edge of danger to these scenes, missing in the more prolix earlier sections, that is most impressive. Character boundaries are blurred excitingly and the dialogue takes wing. The acting is at its most compelling here and much that is carefully, perhaps over-carefully, laid down in the first half is successfully gathered in.

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Most of the interpretation is suitably left to the audience in the end. Is Galileo a simple victim of betrayal by the authoritarian church? Or is he a coward who betrays the cause of science, rendering scientists up as eunuchs without a social conscience or construction in a pursuit of misguided purity that leads ultimately to the nuclear bomb? Or is the ultimate betrayal by Brecht himself, writing plays in the cause of a pseudo-science of theatre that knows no humility, which ends up as little more than ‘a fetishist’s whip with which to beat himself and patronise the working class?

These are very large questions, harshly posed and squarely addressed, inviting the audience to reflect on the intertextual and intersubjective ways in which the flaws and grandeur of Brecht, Laughton and Galileo flow back and forth between each of them and ourselves, suggesting plausible bouts of admiration and disappointment in turn.

OrbitsIn this sort of play the most difficult dramatic aspect is to match the showing and the telling – how do you get the ideas and dialectic across without the evening turning into a lecture? In the first half there is certainly ten minutes’ too much telling, where you would need the zany intercutting humour of a Stoppard to liven the material. However, everything does come together powerfully in the second half as the match between the imaginative recreation of the relationship by the actors and the nexus of ideas in discussion really fires up the intensity of the exchanges.

An enormous amount depends here on the synergy of the two performers, and both Edmund Dehn (Laughton) and Peter Saracen (Brecht) rise to the challenge. Despite an evident throat infection, Dehn ran the gamut of Laughton’s lavish personality – the rhetorical splendour and touching intimacy of his delivery, and the emotional generosity and vulnerability beneath the outwardly confident exterior. He also registered Laughton’s actorly cunning in the way he turned the tables on Brecht, while assuming a variety of subservient masks in the process.

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In some ways Saracen’s richly detailed performance was even more impressive simply because Brecht for much of the action is the straight man who reacts rather than initiates. Bearing a remarkable resemblance to Brecht, he projected a heavily teutonic accent and permanently pained set of expressions which were just right in conveying the verbal precision, austere ideological rigidity and dryly cynical humour of the author. His physical awkwardness too, with a touch of Mr Bean about him, was just right for this interpretation, and again contrasted neatly and successfully with Laughton’s shambling, Falstaffian profusion.

In the production the focus is very much on the two characters alone: some minimal pieces of furniture to suggest a study, a bell to indicate each scene as if we were at a boxing match, which in a sense we are, and a banner displaying the slogan ‘the truth is concrete’ – these are the only gestures towards material culture, though there is plenty of materialism in the text. Kurt Weill’s music appropriately bookends the play, and provides background in the interval.

There is more care over realism with the costumes: Saracen sports the shabby cadre’s outfit and owlish glasses that were Brecht’s trademarks, and Dehn switches between a generous double-breasted suit, and a splendid sartorial confection of cassock and scarlet doctoral robe when in character as Galileo. Director Anthony Shrubsall keeps things moving well, despite the longueurs of the first half.

Brecht as a playwright is usually at his best when he escapes the corset of his theories and embraces the richer account of the interplay of ideas and human character that we find in his earlier collaborations with Weill. Ideas can still dance and social questions still strut their stuff whether on the back of Mother Courage’s cart or in Galileo’s astrolabe. Both these plays assumed their form during Brecht’s exile, and the fact that they were both opened up to a broader, more inclusive and humane vision owed a lot to Laughton’s interventions as actor and editor.

By showing us how this might have happened this creative team have thrown a sparkling and secure rope bridge between the few facts we know and a very usable form of truth, just as the best historical novelists do. Along the way they force us to reflect hard as well on troubling and important questions about the nature of scientific and dramatic truth, and on how malleable both can and always will be in the face of human contradiction and self-deception.

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…