Review: Cancelling Socrates, Jermyn Street Theatre ★★★★☆

by Chris Dobson

Writer Howard Brenton’s new play, Cancelling Socrates, is short, consisting of only four scenes across two acts. Tom Littler, Jermyn Street Theatre’s artistic director, directs the play, which could be summed up as a philosophic tragicomedy. The stage is relatively bare, initially consisting of just a couple of marble columns and a bench.

Cancelling Socrates at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photo: Steve Gregson
Jonathan Hyde in Cancelling Socrates. Photo: Steve Gregson
The sparsity of Isabella van Braeckel’s design reflects the philosophy of Socrates (Jonathan Hyde) himself; for Socrates is a man who likes to walk in bare feet and rags, much to the dismay of his friend Euthyphro (Robert Mountford). More than anything, Socrates likes to incessantly pose philosophical conundrums, often centred around the simple question: But why? This tendency distresses not just Euthyphro, but also his wife Xanthippe (Hannah Morrish) and his mistress Aspasia (Sophie Ward).

They are worried for good reason; Socrates’ determination to uncover the true meaning of things has led him to question even the gods, a dangerous endeavour in ancient Greece. Not that Socrates is particularly worried; he is calmly confident that a jury of his Athenian peers will acquit him of his alleged crimes, which include corrupting the young.

Cancelling Socrates at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photo: Steve Gregson
Cancelling Socrates at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photo: Steve Gregson
Even for the audience, Socrates’ recklessness when it comes to his own safety and the wellbeing of his family is frustrating. It is easy to forgive him, however, because Hyde plays him with such a warm earnestness, it occasionally feels like we are really in the room with Socrates himself, transported through the millennia to 2022 – a time of war, plague and bad politics. Not much has changed, then, although thankfully slavery is less condoned today than it was in Socrates’ time.

Unsurprisingly, for a play so concerned with philosophy, Cancelling Socrates remains elusive at times, with daemons and dream sequences which might leave audience members scratching their heads. This is part of the play’s charm, although it isn’t perfect; more could have been made of Socrates’ queerness, rather than reducing his relationships with boys to just a joke, and the play descends into soap opera-esque melodrama when Xanthippe confronts Aspasia about her relationship with Socrates.

Cancelling Socrates at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photo: Steve Gregson
Cancelling Socrates at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photo: Steve Gregson
However, Mountford is a delight both as the uptight Euthyphro and, in act two, Socrates’ down-to-earth gaoler. Because – spoiler alert – Socrates’ story does not have a happy ending. Then again, to Socrates, who viewed everything as relative, with pleasure dependent on pain and vice versa, perhaps Cancelling Socrates has a happy ending after all. 

Cancelling Socrates is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 2 July.

Chris Dobson is a freelance journalist from the North of England. He now lives in North London and is passionate about theatre, film and literature.

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