Orbits

90 minutes later, I had to question what Orbits, playing at the Drayton Arms until 11 March, was and what it ought to be. It might simply be a study of the relationship between two seminal artistic figures: German political playwright Bertolt Brecht and English Hollywood star Charles Laughton, who collaborated on a translation of the former’s Life of Galileo. The play gives a sense of this odd couple’s take on politics, religion, sexuality and each other, played through, in part, character role play.

I didn’t feel the need to know what happens next.

In this, writer Wally Sewell should be happy to have recruited Peter Saracen. His Brecht peers out from behind small, round glasses, as his neck cranes, turtle-like, towards Laughton. I thought his heavy German accent would wear on me, but it never did, and the overall effect is as intelligent and creepy as I’d expect from the mind behind The Threepenny Opera.

Edmund Dehn’s Laughton is less impressive. Dehn has a wonderful voice, smooth and dignified, but without a huge amount of range. Especially when playing Galileo, Dehn responded to extremes with reactions bordering on apathetic. Despite a history on stage as well as screen, I have him pegged as a film actor, where his subtle variations in tone would read better.

But if Orbits is just supposed to be character trivia and imagined interaction, a book would have been better, for these anecdotes seems strung together by no more than the fact that the author would have his audience learn of them. Instead, perhaps Orbits is a novel interpretation of Brecht’s play. Sewell invests time questioning the motives behind the piece, and Laughton’s part in its translation. In that case, an academic paper would be preferable, as the play lacks the space to explore those ideas in sufficiently grabbing detail.

But if Orbits is a drama, it is one “devoid of conflict”. It is, indeed, self-conscious of that fact; Laughton’s Galileo uses the term in the opening monologue. The amicable dialogue between friends that forms the meat of the play seems purposeless otherwise, except as a vehicle for the author’s ideas. I didn’t feel the need to know what happens next.

Except in scene 3, which introduces a conflict, between Brecht and McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, the entity that blacklisted Hollywood stars and inspired Miller’s The Crucible. Dehn plays the inquisitor in a reversal of scene 1’s interrogation of Galileo. For that moment, the play has conflict, stakes, and intentionality behind its progression. Then it ends, and we return to the two dramaturges. That was a play. The rest is something else. 

Reviews by Bennett Bonci

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The Blurb

The planet-sized egos of left wing German playwright Bertolt Brecht and Hollywood film star Charles Laughton clash as they negotiate the translation and adaptation of Brecht’s play Life of Galileo for its American premiere, with Laughton lined up for the lead.

The themes of Life of Galileo – an account of Galileo’s trial for the heresy of believing that the Earth orbits the Sun and his subsequent recantation under threat of torture – reflected in the lives of Laughton, a gay man in 1940s America, and Brecht, whose left wing sympathies would eventually lead him before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Orbits explores how – just as Galileo crumbled under the Inquisition – Brecht’s beloved ‘concrete truth’, could crumble under pressures, political, historical and personal. It’s a fitting tale perhaps for the post-truth times we find ourselves in today.

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