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The Theatreguide.London Review

Cancelling Socrates
Jermyn Street Theatre  Summer 2022

In 399 BC the Athenian Socrates, one of the key founders of Western philosophy, was sentenced to death for impiety.

Howard Brenton’s play Cancelling Socrates imagines the final days of his life, taking him from the trial to the drinking of poison in a prison cell.

In four short scenes, we meet a seemingly light-hearted Socrates chatting about justice to Euthyphro outside the court, then being tried by a jury of 501 citizens who sentence him to death by a majority vote of sixty-one.

In the final scene, he is shown debating with the guard, refusing to escape and then voluntarily drinking the poison that kills him.

The tone of the play, its humour and its dialogue are contemporary, with a political eye on current debates. The character Euthyphro (Robert Mountford) opens the performance by observing that ‘we have been through plague, war, the unfortunate politics.’

A little later Socrates claims of the young man who is prosecuting him that he was upset ‘and the young believe it is their absolute right not to be upset.’

He is almost always flippant, even proposing to those sentencing him to death that as an alternative he could be ‘condemned to having free dinners provided ..by the state, for life.’

The dialogue is almost always mildly amusing. But we don’t get much idea of what motivates this Socrates. Has he a death wish? Is he trying to illustrate the absurdity of the law, the contradictions of Athenian religious belief?

The comedic tilt of the play can remind you of Ben Elton's Blackadder only with the seriousness turned up. Not enough to define a particular purpose in the show but enough to hold our attention.

In general, the other characters act as the exasperated receiving end of his musings on the law, gods and life.

However, there are also some interesting discussions between his wife Xanthippe (Hannah Morrish) and his lover Aspasia (Sophie Ward) about the role of women and the oppressive nature of the family and society.

Cancelling Socrates doesn’t seem to have a guiding theme or purpose but it is always mildly entertaining and surprisingly upbeat for a play about a man who voluntarily poisons himself. 

Keith McKenna

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Review of Cancelling Socrates - Jermyn Street Theatre 2022

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