Cancelling Socrates

Reviewer's rating

The stage opens with a sprightly Socrates questioning the nature of reality.  What can ever be truly known, he asks his gangling compatriot, the pop-eyed innocent Euthyphro, played with gusto by Robert Mountford.  It is only after an interlude of philosophical badinage in which Socrates ties his young friend up in knots that we find we are outside the court house where Socrates is to be tried for his life.

The old philosopher, given gravitas and wit in Jonathan Hyde’s performance, resolutely refuses to do the sensible thing and apologise for his infractions – sacrilege and corrupting the young.  Instead, he worsens his situation with questions about the gods, asking how their contradictions and brutalities can be reconciled with the concepts of justice and holiness.

It is no plot spoiler to reveal that the jury of Socrates’ fellow Athenians find him guilty and then sentence him to death.  The rest of the play concerns his friends’, mistress’s and wife’s attempts to save him from a fate made inevitable by his insistence on sticking to what he sees as the truth.

We know what Socrates has at stake: his life is balanced against the concep that the majority is always right; he has lived by democracy, he must die by it.  For the women, the stakes are not so obvious; the bitching between a long-time mistress and a young wife is sharp, but we needed to know they have more at stake.  If their powerful protector is disgraced and loses his life, their future is plunged into chaos.  This is not really brought out in the play which has the women arguing about whether the state really represents the supreme good.

It does not help that Aspasia, the famed courtesan whose bed-time conversations supposedly influenced Pericles to give democracy a go, is here played by Sophie Ward who simply does not look the 70 years old which the programme notes tell us Aspasia is.  Her contretemps with Hannah Morrish’s Xanthippe, as Socrates’ wife, look more like a spat between two jealous women with a small age difference.

In a scene with Socrates in gaol Robert Mountford again commands the stage with his portrayal of the gaoler who reads Athenian life as a struggle for personal gain where philosophy is a word game for the rich; his objective is to pocket a bribe so he can buy that second slave his wife is always on to him about.

In a bravura speech reminiscent of T.S.Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Socrates asks ‘am I fooling myself?’ Are those who condemn him really the ones who know how society works, and all his philosophy just self-aggrandisement?

Brenton is one of our greatest contemporary playwrights with landmark pieces such as ‘The Romans in Britain’ about imperialism and ‘Pravda’ about the press, to his name.  The title of the play, with the very modern expression ‘cancelling,’ implies a contribution to contemporary debates and it obliquely addresses the question of withdrawing a platform from one whose views are not ‘politically correct.’  Certainly the play is worth seeing, but it is questionable how much of a light it shines on the present-day situation of those who walk out of their jobs and then complain on the many public platforms made available to them that they have been ‘cancelled.’