Howard Brenton, a much praised playwright whose work has found homes in most of the major drama houses of the UK, reunites with director Tom Littler to bring the provocatively titled Cancelling Socrates to the West End’s Jermyn Street Theatre. This is a fun little play that makes the great man mortal but, unlike the philosopher himself, has very little to say.
Here we are in a chic and stylish Athens, where Socrates (Jonathan Hyde) is accused of impiety (or mockery of the gods to us non Ancient Greeks) and corrupting youth. He meets his foil, his unlearned friend Euthyphro (Robert Mountford) who is on the way to accuse his own father of murder at the magistrates’ court. With piety on his mind, Socrates challenges Euthyphro to define the concept, à la his famous dilemma.
The best parts of this play are Brenton’s rewritings of the Socratic dialogues (perhaps better remembered than Plato’s neat and mythologised recordings), which show just how much of an annoying – but of course necessarily so – pedant Socrates could be. These are treated with a brilliant humour, lifted by Mountford. Hyde is a natural in this role and he plays it with due respect, but not without humour.
Mixed in with the dialogues are views behind the scenes at Socrates’ trial and of his last night in the cell. This gives Brenton an opportunity to introduce the philosopher’s embittered wife along with his ex, Xanthippe (Hannah Morrish) and Aspasia (Sophie Ward). Unfortunately (Bechdel be damned), they’re not given much to do here other than fret over Socrates and play out a dialectic about the individual versus society. This allows the pair to do little more than bicker, and although being rhetorically interesting, it doesn’t look much fun to act out.
The first act contains many winks and nudges to make it clear we’re not in Athens at all, but that we’re to read something contemporary into this play. The narrative doesn’t really engage with ‘cancellation’ (and perhaps this is for the better), with the exception of a few short toots on the whistle to a certain contemporary, curmudgeonly politics; “The young believe it’s their absolute right to be upset” being a particularly bald example. But these can be left aside, as the referent constantly shift to wriggle away from a specific politics. Perhaps when discussing ‘cancelling’ it’s best to refer back to the form of Euthyphro’s dilemma – is ‘cancelled’ something that someone is, or something someone has done to them?
This new play sidesteps awkward portrayals of Socrates, bringing humour to the dialectics, but it’s a bumpy road with some clunky dialogue. Littler has found an excellent pairing in Hyde and Mountford, but overall this play is lacking, as promised by its title.
Written by: Howard Brenton
Directed by: Tom Littler
Set and costume design by: Isabella Van Braeekel
Lighting Design by: William Reynolds
Sound design by: Max Peppenheim and Ali Taie
Cancelling Socrates plays at Jermyn Street Theatre until 2 July. Further information and bookings can be found here.