Cancelling Socrates

Howard Brenton’s new play Cancelling Socrates at Jermyn Street Theatre is a fascinating piece that transports us to classical Greece in a consideration of the circumstances that surrounded the fate of Socrates.

thoroughly enjoyable and frequently amusing

Although steeped in the period much of the dialogue resonates through the ages and hints at the politics of today whilst remaining sufficiently detached so as not to provide a commentary on specific contemporary issues in a way that would date it for future generations. Its timelessness combined with modern relevance makes it particularly appealing.

Many of those we currently hold in high esteem were often less well-regarded in their own day. Socrates (Jonathan Hyde), whom we now revere as the founder of western philosophy, despite his having left no written records of his ideas and beliefs, was a man who attracted both devotees and enemies. The latter, in the person of the poet Meletus and a few others, brought charges against the philosopher of corrupting youth, worshipping false gods and failure to worship in accordance with the state religion. It is this trial, his conviction and death sentence that are woven into the portrayal of his domestic life and his debates with Euthyphro (Robert Mountford) who is also in court, bringing a charge against his father. The judicial proceedings are held off-stage with only the cries of the crowd and third-person reports indicating key moments in the decision-making process. In Act 2 Mountford takes on the role of Gaoler, with a stunning change of accent and demeanour; the two parts testify to his skill and versatility as an actor and ability to create strong, clearly defined characters with considerable appeal. Hyde, in a logical, distinguished and at times other-wordly performance of the philosopher, relishes enticing both Euthyphro and the Gaoler into debates about truth, democracy, religion and the law, posing conundrums that are clearly beyond them.

If ancient Greece is seen as a man’s world then this is clearly reflected in the play. In clearly supporting roles Sophie Ward and Hannah Morrish very much play second fiddle to the leading men. Each does so with style and conviction as Aspasia, mistress to Socates and Xanthipe his wife, respectively. They are very different in their concerns and attitudes, contrasting involvement in political debate and ambition with homely and motherly priorities. The substance of their discussions, however, occupies a far lower stratum from that of the men and they are overwhelmed by the centrality of the male leads.

The Jermyn Street Theatre’s artistic director, Tom Littler, has adopted a straightforward and stolid approach to the play with no surprises. The set and costumes by Issy Van Braeckel reflect the period. The shabby outfit of Socrates would be worthy of John the Baptist, another man out on a limb, while the other costumes reflect their wearer’s status in society. Their realism, however, seems a little overstated within the more symbolic set of three white pillars and row of frieze. William Reynolds provides the standard lighting most of the play requires but he has some artistic moments in the dream sequences as do sound designers Max Pappenheim and Ali Taie.

Cancelling Socrates is thoroughly enjoyable and frequently amusing. It’s a delightful departure from most contemporary drama, offering ease of access into the life of one of the world’s greatest thinkers at the level of a beginner’s guide.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

Today, Socrates is revered as the founding father of Western philosophy. But in 399 CE Athens, he was a pain in the neck. The plague is over, democracy is (just about) restored, and everyone would like to get back to normal. How hard is it for one ageing firebrand to stop asking questions? It’s time to shut him up… Based on eyewitness accounts, this is a provocative, witty and dangerous world premiere from Howard Brenton, one of our foremost dramatists.

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