Wednesday, 15 June 2022

REVIEW: Cancelling Socrates at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Growing up as a callow youth Socrates was the chain-smoking, midfield genius that played in the great Brazilian football team of the early 1980s. I’ve since learned he was also the founding father of Western philosophy. Two entirely different geniuses that require a unique response. The crowd-pleasing footballer was simple to read and understand, but the philosopher who deep dives into the soul is another matter entirely. Both individuals are rightly admired in their respective fields, but the latter is the subject of this new play by Howard Brenton. It draws tantalising parallels with modern events as the trial of Socrates in 399 BC is re-evaluated. 

Socrates (Jonathan Hyde) is a philosopher who has seemingly run out of credit. His enemies are baying for blood and have brought charges against him of worshipping false gods and corrupting the young. He finds a sympathetic ear in Euthyphro (Robert Mountford) who pleads with Socrates to soften the tone and secure a lighter sentence at trial. His wife Xanthippe (Hannah Morrish) bemoans the tendencies of her errant husband; while Aspasia (Sophie Ward) is the wily courtesan and torch bearer for equality. The people have suffered plague, war and political incompetence (ring any bells?) and now just want to get back to normal (bells getting louder?). What they don’t need is an atheist in their midst who thinks too much.

Howard Brenton has mastered the art of storytelling with the driest of subjects. Fifth-century Greek philosophy doesn’t immediately jump off the page. But Brenton has demonstrated how history continually repeats itself and stranger still, how the human condition retains a familiar shape whatever the setting. Socrates challenged the status quo by asking ‘why’? It threatens no one by simply posing the question. The most perceptive quote attributed to Socrates must surely be ‘the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.' We are all a work in progress and start with a blank page every day of our lives. Brenton has brought dusty characters to life with a bright script that informs and entertains in equal measure. The excellent Jonathan Hyde leads a stellar cast that carries the narrative with a sureness of touch.

We soon learn that cancel culture, wokeism and the essence of political correctness are nothing new. It stifles freedom of speech yet can still flourish in a democracy. But Socrates felt we should express our opinion freely without fear of the consequences. The only difference is that we are shamed by the monster that is social media, back then was the pain of death. I think we should be grateful to Socrates. Bet he couldn’t hit a 20-yarder on the volley though?

Review by Brian Penn

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: E12 | Price of Ticket: £32/£28 concessions
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