The Death of Socrates
Burton Taylor Theatre

Pretentious… ego? Well no, surprisingly not.

The Death of Socrates by Plato, adapted by Amyas Merivale, is a strong production and one that deserves to do well. The first night performance was confident all round and though the piece occasionally strays from the dramatically engaging into the realms of the theoretically interesting, this is countered by some unexpected comic flourishes from Joseph Fenton (Crito/Callicles) and some strangely modern instances of slapstick humour which lighten the dialogue-based exchanges and give the play some important pace.

The story is taken from The Last Days of Socrates, a collection of four of Plato's dialogues which portray the trial, imprisonment and death of Plato's teacher and idol. The adaptation is well-thought out and well structured and the register, a careful balance between philosophers' theorizing and realistic vernacular, was maintained throughout.

In general the cast bring the debates to life warmly. After a slow opening (excusable in that explanation to the audience is the priority), the show is ignited by some of the more off-the-wall interpretations by the cast. Star of the show was undoubtedly Joseph Fenton, whose wonderfully wide-eyed delivery hinted at the decadence of Caligula, where he would have fitted in perfectly. Fenton brought most of the laughs, though Merivale (who directed and played three parts) came in with solid performances off which his humour could bounce.

Merivale's idea of splitting Socrates into two characters leads to some interesting moments. It gives Socrates an advantage while onstage over the other characters which works well and particular moments when one Socrates is speaking while the other actors interact with the other Socrates are the most effective. The device may seem a little arbitrary at first, but it gives Ben Van Der Velde some funny lines, which he makes the most of. I found the difference in accent and appearance of the two Socrates slightly jarring, but only because two of the other actors in the cast looked more similar to each other than the two Socrates did.

The set was minimal, consisting of blocks and a bed, and there were few if any props. This was a practical solution, but the more realistic costumes seemed to come from within a different theatrical convention. On the whole however, the direction proved to be very competent, if not particularly daring, and the most important objective of clarity was achieved.

The lighting was smooth and confident and some lovely pale blues were well used to add a slight chill to some of David Botham's narrations. However there was a notable absence of sound effects or music which could have been used to add to the atmosphere.

The last speech by Socrates (Botham), was crucially well delivered and provided one of the most intense moments of the play. Echoing, or foreshadowing, Hamlet's To be or not to be speech, it brought a sudden, but convincing gravity to the procedings. Botham's performance was engaging, but due to the splitting up of Socrates into two parts, both actors had less room for variation within their character.

All in all this is a show worth watching for a number of reasons. Merivale certainly has a sense of rhythym and dialogue, and although this time his script verges on the verbose, he shows moments of great wit and amusing characterisation. If these aspects are given a slightly larger share of his next work, he could well produce something that is very good indeed. It is a modest production which realises its own limits and makes for an enjoyable and thought-provoking evening within them. If you're afraid that this is typically pretentious student drama, don't be. It's really rather good.

Daniel James, 17.02.04

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