Howard Brenton’s play about the last days of Athenian philosopher and gadfly Socrates comes at a moment when playwrights seem increasingly to be seeking out the parallels between the ancient Greek world and our own upset modern society.
Featuring a convincingly otherworldly Socrates in Jonathan Hyde, this is a rich play of ideas, elegantly directed by Tom Littler, and following in the tradition of Plato’s dialogues to give us some fine examples of the Socratic method.
There are question-and-answer discussions on meaty subjects around the unexamined life, the clash of old and new orders and the ideal of democracy in principle, along with its failures in practice. Brenton’s script combines the ancient and modern so well that everyday profanities sit next to talk of slaves (ever so subtly ironised) and big philosophical ideas to create sparky, bathetic moments.
Socrates is condemned to death by a jury for sacrilege and rationalism, essentially, in his questioning of the gods. The people, led by a young upstart, have strains of intolerance, and cleave to “certain” values above Socrates’ questioning in clear, clever parallels to today.
It is an accomplishment for a play whose action comes in philosophical discussion and in which dramatic speeches are only ever reported, that it does not feel static or sleepy. Isabella van Braeckel’s set is striking in its minimalism (a few pillars, a wall frieze). William Reynolds’ lighting is exquisite; and sound designer Max Pappenheim, who is also a classicist, writes a great mini-essay on ancient Athenian society in the playtext, too.
What drama there is alongside the ideas feels arresting, fiercely intelligent and full of risk but not satisfyingly complete – like scenes from a play rather than a play itself. Although we believe in Socrates as a philosopher, we never quite believe in him as a man choosing death on principle, over family, children and life. He walks towards his end, blithely philosophising, right until the cup of hemlock touches his lips and even afterwards as he wavers between life and death.
There is, though, some very fine acting that brings the ideas to life and plays the comic lines perfectly. Socrates’ fellow Athenian, Euthyphro, is played by Robert Mountford as a pompous religious stickler. Doubling up as the “gaoler”, Mountford is so good in both roles that he near enough upstages the lead.
There are also the women in Socrates’ life – the mistress, Aspasia (Sophie Ward) in a face-off with the wife, Xanthippe (Hannah Morrish) – who are so fascinating you wish for greater focus on them. Surely Aspasia, an influential thinker in this male-dominated space, deserves a play of her own? Their fight for the love of the same man is turned into a heated debate on family versus public life, which never entirely convinces but is fascinating nonetheless.
At times, the modern world, and its terms, seem too obviously grafted on, even in Socrates’ titular “cancellation”: his is a death sentence that does not amount to the same thing as social media “cancellation” at all (or was Jesus cancelled, too, and the likes of Galileo?). So too, the talk of Socrates as a dinner-party-throwing elite figure and “the great unwashed” who condemn him and who are clearly today’s populists.
It is ultimately its discussion on democratic rule that brings the most depth and complexity: Socrates finds himself interrogating his belief in the rightness of the majority vote, and as questions around the ancient Athenian democratic process hang in the air, the unspoken spectre of the Brexit referendum is there alongside them.
Cancelling Socrates is at Jermyn Street theatre, London, until 2 July.