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SOCRATES THEN SERMONISED NOW

Print Version

SOCRATES NOW
Presented by Yannis Simonides

at James Cabaret, Hania Street, Wellington
5 Apr 2014
[1hr 20mins (plus Q&A)]

Reviewed by Charlotte Simmonds, 6 Apr 2014


This show will not appeal to regular readers of Theatreview. If you are a regular reader of Theatreview and you saw this show and it appealed to you, get in touch and if you are convincing I will buy you a drink and admit that I was wrong. 

I assume the show is being held here because the building is still actually the Greek Community Centre. I've seen some great bands here but the venue currently operating as James Cabaret is not a great place for intimate theatre. The acoustics are flat, it still smells of years' worth of deeply entrenched cigarette smoke, the bar staff seem unaware that a show is going on and crush ice and chat throughout the show, it overheats, some of their lights have apparently been accidentally stolen by a band that played there recently, refrigerators constantly drone in the background and when the actor asks for more house lights to be turned on, the remaining house lights are promptly turned off.

But aside from the crummy location (is the show miked because the acoustics are flat or is the show held in a place with flat acoustics because it is miked?), Socrates Now, which is essentially a direct transposition of Plato's Apology of Socrates onto the stage as a solo show, is at least half an hour too long, if not more. Yannis Simonides has some charming facial expressions and smiles that keep me interested for the first 15 minutes, but overall I am not convinced after seeing this show that the Apology is really suited to the stage. If it is, this is not the way to do it and I see no ‘Now' about the show, only a ‘Back Then'. 

My friend remarked we can at least appreciate a man showing off his talent as a character actor, believing as I believed, that Simonides had put enormous effort into creating a bumbling old man who waffles on and spills water everywhere. Unfortunately, when the show ends and it is time for the Q and A, it becomes apparent that what I had thought were the quirks of a character were the quirks of Simonides himself, although his diction is slightly better when he speaks as himself and he is a little easier to understand. 

If I had not read the Apology, purportedly the defence Socrates gave at his trial, before I went, I would have found this show impossible to follow (and even then I struggle). From the press about this show I have read beforehand, it seems it is destined to change your life and the world at the same time, but I find it hard to see what Socrates has to say that is truly important. My friend feels that perhaps this play has mind-blowing relevance in places like Europe and the Middle East where the crisis and turmoil might lead the audience to gasp, “He's talking about us!” but perhaps it is hard for us to connect to it here. My friend is more generous than I am. 

Simonides mentions after the show that it is most suited for secondary school audiences who, he says, “get it”. Apparently they get it because they are innocent, untainted, can engage in critical thinking and are not yet cynical. My supposition is that the secondary school audiences “get it” because the critical thinking required to engage with this show is not extremely sophisticated or overly challenging, and can perhaps appear mind-blowing when it is your first exposure to it. I remember debating the arguments of Socrates with a close friend in secondary school myself and the flaws in Socrates' reported arguments that that friend pointed out then remain flaws for me to this day. Even secondary school students can challenge this. 

There are several large issues with this show (80 minutes long followed by a ‘Q & A' in which no questions are ever answered and which has been known to go on till five in the morning, presumably because Simonides finds concise, pithy responses difficult). The first is that Plato's account of Socrates has never been considered a completely truthful or factual one, Plato being highly prone to making a good story rather than a good history, as the majority of us probably are. Given that Plato himself is more concerned with his audience than the facts, this is a good chance to diverge wildly from the ‘script' and to concern yourself with your audience in like manner.

Simonides had mentioned in the TEDx talk I was given in the press release that he plays off the audience and adjusts the show accordingly. I see none of this happening tonight. If he is really going to play off the audience, maybe it be nice for the audience to have the chance of deciding whether Socrates gets to live or die. 

But the actor appears to believe in the veracity of the words in the Apology more than was perhaps even intended by its author (Plato) himself. The concept seems to be that if we could all think more like Socrates – a wonderful, great, intelligent, astounding man whom we have absolutely no written works by at all but only the hearsay of others on which to base our conception of him – the world would be a better place, all the politicians would understand that they know nothing and the goodness inherent in all humanity would so much rise to the forefront that we could elect people for positions of power and authority using mere lottery, regardless of their level of intelligence or actual skill.

However, the method the actor uses to make his point and to engage in dialogue with us, while subtly criticising those who favour oration and rhetoric over one-on-one dialogue, is itself not the Socratic method, but is itself the very oration and rhetoric he is against.

We, the audience, are also encouraged not to hold so stringently to our own dogmas nor necessarily to abandon them completely but to marry them with dialogue and thus live in harmony with one another. Yet, again, the persona of Socrates seems to me to be Simonides' own dogma, heavily infused with something that comes very close to religion. The audience sits through what could easily be mistaken for a church sermon, and then is enjoined, as in a church sermon, not to come to the theatre on Saturday night then forget about it completely and go home to live life exactly as before, unchanged, but to be affected by it in some way. There is even an ‘altar call' of sorts in which we are asked to respond to the show with ideas on what we can do, once we leave, to make the world a better place using the tools we have gained from Socrates.

But Socrates is no god to me and his ‘wisdom' which he claims not to have, is merely the wisdom of a man, another human, probably no wiser than me. His ‘teaching' does not sweep me away in a tide of emotion and I cannot worship this character we know very little about with the same reverence Simonides' does. I cannot worship him at all.

By the time Socrates was actually sentenced in the play, it was clear to me that Athens was sick of him not because he managed to find holes in some poor logic that could have been picked to pieces in two sentences rather than half an hour, and not because of his arrogance in believing in a divine mission as the horsefly /gadfly sent by the gods to sting the sleeping city into consciousness while at the same claiming to know absolutely nothing and then again contradictorily exhorting everyone to simultaneously desire wisdom above all else yet understand that it is impossible to know anything at all ever because only God is wise, but simply because he was boring. I only couldn't understand why this meant he had to die. Were the ancient Greeks really such a fun-filled collection of people that being boring was punishable with death? But we can't be the life of the party all the time! Some of us get tired! Especially when we're in our 70s.

If Socrates really was just a stinging little insect on the backside of a horse, then perhaps the stinging little insect just got crushed when the horse rolled over one day. Perhaps it wasn't personal at all.
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Comments

John Smythe posted 6 Apr 2014, 12:11 PM / edited 8 Apr 2014, 12:00 AM
 

It's worth noting that Plato's 'Apology of Socrates' was what we would now call an apologia. This from Wikipedia:
Apologia is a form of practiced rhetoric that is used in self-defense or as a vindication of a person. It is common in both politics and public relations, as well as a term for analysis in genre criticism. It most frequently entails the speaker publicly expressing remorse for his or her actions. Non-apology apology functions in the same situation, but fails to admit wrongdoing. The result of the apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation of broken relationships.[1] The origin of apologia (Greek: ἀπολογία) traces back to the root word apologos (ἀπόλογος), meaning “a story.” Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle all describe apologia as a specific genre, in which an orator defends himself or his actions against an accusation.