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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Directed by Tom Littler, Set Designer and Costume Designer Isabella van Braeckel, Lighting Designer William Reynolds, Co-Composer and Sound Designers Max Pappenheim, Ali Taie; Assistant Director Becca Chadder, Movement Associate Phoebe Hyder.

Production Manager Lucy Mewis-McKerrow, Stage Manager Lisa Cochrane, Production & Rehearsal Photographer Steve Gregson, Graphic Designer Ciaran Walsh, PR David Burns.

Production Supporters Directors’ Circle Jermyn Street Theatre, Marit Mohn, Robert Westlake

Till July 7th



Familiar, of course. ‘Lightenment… truth is, you arty-farty thinkers, you look down your noses… before the plague, the war, but… it’s our time now. We the great unenlightened, we the great unwashed, we are Athens now. You and your kind, you’re the enemies of democracy.’

Robert Mountford relishes his second role as Gaoler to a post-trial philosopher who provokes his own conviction. Howard Brenton’s Cancelling Socrates opening at Jermyn Street Theatre isn’t so much timely as a state-of-democracy-in-chassis. And very clever use he makes of real people, even Plato’s quasi-fictive Euphyphro (aka Mr Straight-Talker), co-opting that eponymous last Socratic dialogue, as Socrates asks Mountford’s Euphyphro what piety is before Euphyphro charges his father with murder.

Though Brenton’s title is provocatively contemporary, the play speaks for itself. Here, it’s not judges deemed traitors, though it might be. It’s ‘enemies of democracy’: thinkers, or say professors at universities cancelled for cancelling hate-speechers and academic outriders. Call those outriders spouting against a fictive Cultural Marxism (hommage to  Goebbels’ fictive Cultural Bolshevism and his targets) pious. Defending ‘Christian family values’. Those who demand free speech for themselves, yet cancel others (think BLM) with extreme prejudice. Democracy was as fragile in Athens as now. Oligarchs are sexy.

Scoring different registers – sometimes in a beat – Brenton rubs sophistry with Sprach-Brexit in gleeful frottage. The Gaoler’s bloke-beat rubs against Socrates’ ‘Am I – caught in a bubble? A blown-glass vessel. And – my mind – merely an insect crawling on its inner walls?’ There’s other antimonies: pastry-recipes and political games, shot through with streetwise panic as three characters fend noises off.

Mountford – who relishes too the moyen sensual strut he brought to Parolles in All’s Well here in 2019 – starts us off in the street, and like Graeco-Roman comedies, street is where we stay till the interval. Euphyphro’s straight-talking citizen throws banter and compliments to the audience where recorded ancient Greek booms back. Mountford’s master of one-man bounce – as shows at JST last year prove. But he’s as superb in Euphyphro’s battered braggadocio as the Gaoler’s bull.

Civilisation Euphyphro says is ’the art of living in cities’ before being yanked into reluctant dialogue with Jonathan Hyde’s quizzically warm Socrates; for that inquisition on how pious it is to prosecute your own father on leaving a murderous servant to starve in a ditch. Mountford riles in bafflement, tugs to escape, flusters truths tremendous but trite.

Hyde’s musically serrated voice is a joy, his eyebrow-flick of irony exquisitely wrought to make any right-minded citizen – or wife –punch him. He’s so absolutely reasonable. So right he’s wrong. So contrarian he picks his own arguments apart. His humanity’s on trial too. His prosecutors are those who love him. Hyde’s Socrates doesn’t lack warmth, but warms to a posthumous existence. Could he converse with the dead? It’s that detachment, not chilly but quizzical, that Hyde pitches so consummately.

In this Euphyphro spat, Brenton follows Plato’s text in lively swerves, adding to Plato’s metaphor of what is inherently ‘carried’ – a cup. Which famously returns. Not brimming with that elusive elixir piety, but hemlock.

Brenton’s too shrewd to dramatize the last days of Socrates, barring a cock or two. His Platonic platform lifts off to compass a world which crackles with resentment, fear, quick fixes. As well as recent plague and war. We’re out of Socratic sophistry and into fresh ones. Socrates’ own teacher, Sophie Ward’s Aspasia rocks up confident that her plea for him to insert a papyrus of apology at his trial’s end will swerve sentence.

Ward’s great rhetorician taught ruler Pericles too. Living a world of high politics as a hetairai – courtesan/intellectual companion – in Brenton’s hands she’s out of Laclos’ playbook, talking of politics as ‘games’ like Liaisons Dangereuses’ Marquise de Merteuil. Truth’s politic. She loves democracy, wisdom and Socrates in that order perhaps, more than games, silkily matching her pupil’s dialectic. But when she senses all’s on the hazard for democracy, games this danger too.

Ward’s voice carries honeyed hauteur, amusement, warmth, sophistry above all and iron fury. Urbanity – scorn for those who think fanatics like Socrates’ tormenter Miletus can win – mixes with a lurch of fear when her second prize-pupil refuses rules. An academic whose favourite leaves philosophy to herd cats.

Aspasia’s first prize-pupil founded democracy, but. ‘They say Pericles caught democracy from you in bed’ remarks Hannah Morrish’s Xanthippe, Socrates’ young wife, bitterly, bringing that gnawing inwardness she wrought in Helena in All’s Well, alongside Mountford. The more still she is, the more she intimates tragedy.

Aspasia’s unfazed. ‘In many ways I did… had to fuck the brains out of Pericles to do it But that was no hardship. He was a beautiful man.’ This Laclos-istry after an edgy parley on Xanthippe’s superior cookie-skill doesn’t help. By now though you’ll see how funny this play is too.

Morrish’s pragmatic ear-to-burnt-earth approach is wholly different. Ever-alert, tense, superstitiously fearful and scornful of childless politico Aspasia, she can quote Sappho, counter Aspasia’s wish to befriend and ally herself. When Aspasia asserts how ‘rare’ they are, ‘the people of the future will know our names!’ Xanthippe’s  having none of it. She hears roars for blood, fears for her family with farmers starving, land scorched by Spartans (horribly familiar now), is prescient and – hears a daemon saying ‘no’.

Brenton gets daemons out of Socrates too, a real kick-in-the-Gods for Athenians, something on record, though slightly elaborated. Here Brenton harks back to his 2010 play Anne Boleyn, whose Protestant conscience a daemon foreshadows. It pushes Socrates into a ‘here I stand, I can do no other’ stance.

Directed by Tom Littler it’s fleet and gripping, knocking eight minutes off the one-hour-forty-five billed. Isabella van Braeckel’s created a set suave with simple block colours: scarlet stage, an olive-green backdrop with a cobalt-sky strip of light above – replaced with a sculpted frieze in the second half; and three white Doric columns, the first two short enough to plant cookies on. Or other refreshments. And a single hard white couch for the second half.

Van Braeckel’s costumes adopt period folds from what images we have. They contrast sumptuously with stark backdrops: patterned in blues, earthy ochres (Socrates of course), reds, wood-greens  and champagnes. It’s a neatly provocative juxtaposition. Complex people, classically simple dilemmas.

Lit neatly by William Reynolds, tenebrous shadows loom in the second incarcerated half, spotlit with dream-sequences. Co-composer and sound designers Max Pappenheim (with his Classics hat, prefacing an elegant text introduction), and Ali Taie provide dramatic music, less flitting aulos, more tragic crump; and those Greek voices off.

‘Fanatics are like iron. In the end they rust and crumble’ hopes Aspasia. Xanthippe’s doubtful. Like us. Brenton, highlighting a first peak of civilisation, shows how democracy crumbles too; must be fought for with vigilance when populism engulfs worlds.

It’s an exquisite chamber play: crowd-roars etched-in acoustically. In centring women’s agency, Brenton recognises a paradox: Aspasia gives the world democracy and Socratic persuasion; her history’s barely recorded. With Xanthippe, her reluctant partner in grief, it’s her story. Both carry the play’s tragedy: Morrish directly, Ward prismatically so pain’s refracted through storm-lights of reason and ambition, with a surprised lurch to grief when her schemes – and games – stop. Then Morrish springs a different self.

Ward and Morrish are sovereign: scoring points, scouring contained grief. Mountfield’s buoyant gadlfly approach sparks off both them and Hyde’s maddening calm, where he shivers into his character’s own half-light in a moving finale. Cocks don’t have the last word. It isn’t all about Socrates either, and it’s Plato – a young dramatist Aspasia scorns – who’s banished just offstage in this telling. Even offstage characters aren’t immune from Brenton’s wit. Tragedy aside, this drama’s a scream.

Brenton touching eighty is at the height of his powers. Littler in his last magnificent year helming JST before taking over at the Orange Tree, assembles a pitch-perfect cast, reuniting two from his outstanding All’s Well. This too.