Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 7th June 2022
“Littler and his team never disappoint in what they achieve in one of the most challenging theatre spaces in London”
Cancelling Socrates, just opened at the Jermyn Street Theatre, will please fans of Howard Brenton, one of the powerhouses of British playwriting of the last fifty years. The play may seem a departure from Brenton’s usual concerns. But then we think of Pravda, (written with David Hare) which engages with similar themes of promoting troublesome ideas to a wider public. In that con-text, a play about a long dead philosopher doesn’t seem like such an outlier in the Brenton canon.
Cancelling Socrates is about one of the most famous events in the history of western philosophy—the trial and execution of Athens’ leading philosopher. Socrates was a notable gadfly and “corrupter of the young” as his critics described him. Cancelling Socrates has all the hallmarks of Brenton’s craft—engaging dialogue, liberally sprinkled with witty one liners—and a plot that features extraordinary characters, dealing with fallout from forces greater than themselves. Brenton has always had a nice line in satirical edginess that can highlight a tragic situation while prompting an audience to laughter. But whereas the characters in Pravda have to deal with unscrupulous media barons, Cancelling Socrates has merely to deal with unscrupulous gods, and Athenian citizens tired of being stung into thinking for themselves. Right from the start, you know the arguments our eponymous hero marshals in his defence, are not going to end well.
This premiere production, directed by Tom Littler, and starring Jonathan Hyde as Socrates, places us directly in the philosophical fray of Athens in 399 BC. The limited space available at the Jermyn Theatre is once again utilized to clever effect, (set design by Isabella van Braeckel). In addition to the stylized Greek pillars and friezes, there are signs in both English and Greek available on stage for those patrons needing the toilets, and the sparse set actually gives a sense of spaciousness, which Littler and his cast use well. Cancelling Socrates opens with a blend of English and Greek until we are all settled down, and ready to engage with some philosophical wordplay (mercifully all in English.) Robert Mountford, who plays both Socrates’ friend Euthyphro in the first half, and the Goaler in the second, is an engaging foil for Hyde’s Socrates. Euthyphro is firmly on Team Socrates, but even he is begging for mercy by the end of a run in with the great man over what constitutes holy and unholy acts. It’s a nice set up for what follows.
Those who remember the pathos of Socrates’ death from Plato’s description in the Phaedo should not expect a similar effect in Cancelling Socrates. Brenton sets up the wit perhaps too well, so that the moment of drinking hemlock seems like whimsy, rather than tragedy. Even the presence of compelling characters such as Aspasia (Sophie Ward) and Xanthippe (Hannah Morrish) never quite shift the emphasis from the domestic to the civic. The trial takes place off stage, which doesn’t help. There is much talk of the gods, and the daemons that allegedly prompt Socrates into the acts that doom him. These arguments might not resonate much with a modern audience, even though Brenton reminds us that 5th century Athens was in a similar state of turmoil to 21st century London. It’s a tenuous connection, at best.
Nevertheless, time passes very pleasantly with Cancelling Socrates. Littler and his team never disappoint in what they achieve in one of the most challenging theatre spaces in London. The Jermyn Street Theatre is always warm and welcoming. This play is not a date night show, perhaps, unless you are both philosophers. But it’s provocative, and yes, even family, entertainment. You should definitely take up the opportunity to corrupt your own young.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Steve Gregson
Jermyn Street Theatre until 2nd July
Previously reviewed at this venue: