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‘Cancelling Socrates’ Review – a treat for the mind

Jonathan Hyde as Socrates. Photo by Steve Gregson. The image has been cropped and compressed.

Roar writer Saul Levene reviews “Cancelling Socrates”, a fascinating play that draws parallels between the trial of Socrates and the ideological battles we see today. 

Howard Brenton’s lively re-enactment of the last days of Socrates has everything going for it, with little contrivance and a lot of charm. Its title points towards the political climate of today, asking the question that looms over the entire production: Would Socrates be ‘cancelled’ nowadays?

Jonathan Hyde stars as the rebellious sage, stepping outside of the orthodoxies of the pious Euthyphro (Robert Mountford) and challenging the dogma of his time, not for the sake of provocation, but because of his love of truth and the examined life. His speech is convincing, boisterous, and noble, as is only fitting for one of the pillars of Western civilisation.  

This question of cancel culture is profoundly interesting when mapped onto Athens. Our postmodern world has seemingly moved past religious dogma and exiling individuals for ‘corrupting the morality of the youth’, yet orthodoxies abound. Would we respect the freedom of speech of someone like Socrates who refused to leave any topic unprobed, regardless of the sensitivity of those who took offence? 

Jonathan Hyde as Socrates and Robert Mountford as Euthyphro. Photo by Steve Gregson. The image has been cropped and compressed.

But the play leaves any oblique political analogies to the discretion of the audience. Its modern commentary doesn’t stretch beyond the title, and I love it for that. It is far too subtle and well done to reduce the story to a battering ram for any ideology, and Socrates could be that for either the ‘woke’ liberals bemoaning populism or those who see ‘wokeness’ as the yoke that would ‘cancel’ someone like Socrates. 

Its principal drama revolves around the philosopher himself, and it is a delight to watch the glory of the Socratic dialogue played out with charm, love, and intellectual flair. The play is short, clocking in at roughly an hour and a half, and I would have loved to give Socrates more time to show off his intellectual powers. 

Naturally, things sour. It is no secret that the tale of Socrates ends badly. How should his trial be portrayed? Brenton’s script has little ornate rhetoric and lacks a thorny reenactment of that trial. Indeed, the entirety of the trial is done off-stage while the audience watches a dialogue between Socrates’ wife Xanthippe (Hannah Morrish) and the cunning politician and mistress Aspasia (Sophie Ward). 

Sophie Ward as Aspasia and Hannah Morrish as Xanthippe. Photo by Steve Gregson. The image has been cropped and compressed.

Their dialogue is fascinating, even if it drags on. It is by far the longest-running dialogue in the play, and it doesn’t seem completely believable. As tense as they might feel over Socrates’ affections, the majority of their debate revolves around the state versus the home. This resonates beyond their particular debate, as it asks whether the intellectualism that Socrates practices can be as important as the reality of people, children, physical work, and buildings that can be touched. 

Here, Brenton has created a broad, thinking work that lauds the heroism of one of the men whose shadow looms over all science, literature, politics, and the entirety of Western civilisation. The lighting, costume design, and set are simple and splendid. The acting is equally well done. It is a work that does not drag, does not patronise, and does not preach to its audience. I wholeheartedly recommend it. 

‘Cancelling Socrates’ is playing at Jermyn Street Theatre until 2 July. You can book tickets here.

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