Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 2 July 2022
Fascinating to see how, despite many light tempting fatuities and sentimentalities onscreen and onstage, and the countercurrents of self conscious experiment and virtuous nagging at the heavier end, you can still pack theatres with conversations about ideas. Provided, that is, they are knottily entertaining and streaked with vivid eccentric characters. We have had Straight Line Crazy and now The Southbury Child at the Bridge, rich in both; and the Jermyn – small as it is – has been rocking Howard Brenton’s latest, set in Ancient Greece and dealing with the last days and condemnation for sacrilege of the philosopher Socrates.
Our hero is played with raggedly cheerful donnish insouciance by Jonathan Hyde, bright-eyed from the start as he questions and teases his friend Euthypro, a nicely effete Robert Mountford, about the nature of holiness and the absurd legends of warring gods, on which their fragile democracy is, for the moment, resting. His legal accuser, delightfully to the grown-up audience, is a pompous young man (“It’s great that the young take right-thinking so seriously” murmurs Socrates). Much has been made of this parallel with todays censorious youth and closed minds.
But there is more than that topical twitch to it: Brenton creates a portrait of a particular kind of tiresome necessary questioning, a stubbornness which warms the heart in an age of group think on half a dozen issues. It is also a humane play, the role of Socrates’ wife Xanthippe and his mistress Aspasia forming its centre with a sharply argument between personal and family values and the restless wider ambitions of the soul. But the whole thing sings, under deft direction from Tom Littler. It’s his last hurrah as artistic director of the Jermyn, and he deserves every plaudit and propulsion to bigger things: he picked up all that was good in this marvellous little theatre and ran with it.
Which is why I am posting this, sold-out as it is, in the hopes that he takes it on elsewhere. And keeps the marvellous central performance by Hyde and its counterpart by Mountford (who doubles as the jailer in the fascinating, eerie final scenes), not to mention both the women, Sophie Ward and Hannah Morrish (the latter finally and eerily becoming his inner daemon-goddess near the deathbed, in a brief, brilliantly lit and imagined sequence). It’s entirely a treat, a thoughtful treat, never dull for a moment, leaving a dozen new thoughts. Vive the Jermyn, vive Littler!
Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk. Running to Saturday, sold out, always worth trying..