Reanimating the past to ponder the present
By Warwick Moffat
Socrates Now is an event in two part:; an eighty-minute delivery of Plato’s The Apology followed by discussion on how its message might be applied today. The Apology is Plato’s retelling of how Socrates defended himself against charges of atheism and youth corruption. Its success as a philosophical argument is unparalleled. As a defence, many believe it guaranteed Socrates would be put to death.
Elliniko Theatro has produced 300-plus showings of Socrates Now, at least fifty in the open air, like the stunning Renaissance Revival setting outside the Hellenic Museum.
I am quite conflicted about this production, which has accumulated global goodwill and received great praise from respected academics. A great deal has focussed on having brought Socrates to life or having advanced the appreciation of Classical culture. I must insist that as a theatrical experience Socrates Now raises some issues.
Yannis Simonides’ portrayal of Socrates is indeed a masterpiece. This Socrates is three-dimensional. Of course he is wise, but he is also arrogant, occasionally manic and strange in his mannerisms. He is often mesmerising. Given scholars continue to debate the conflicting evidence on how Socrates actually behaved, this aspect of Socrates Now deserves every accolade.
That said, these qualities, and Simonides’ own powerful presence, are too heavily relied upon. To sustain eighty minutes, the audience needs more. Faithful renditions of Plato lack the storytelling needed by a modern audience. Excellent Shakespearian companies regularly overcome the same shortcomings, without diminishing the original text.
As an educational piece this lack may be fine; but Elliniko Theatro’s ambitions are to reach anyone concerned enough about current events to “Think. Question. Change.” I overheard many comments on the night between satisfied enthusiasts and bemused non-enthusiasts. To truly achieve this broader ambition, a reappraisal is needed.
Simonides The Performer knew the personal limitations of Socrates. Simonides the Discussion Mentor left me wondering where that sense of limitation had gone. He seemed too driven by the sanctity of his intended message to be truly open to the possibilities from within his audience. One must wonder: is Simonides standing on the shoulders of a philosopher who openly disdained teachers, in order to teach people?
Misgivings aside, the ambition and boldness of Socrates Now commanded attention and justify attendance. It is great entertainment for anyone interested in philosophy (especially ethics) or ancient wisdom. Despite its limitations, the after-show discussion may still prove stimulating.
The Melbourne sessions of Socrates Now have concluded for this tour. They were held on the 7th, 9th and 10th March at the Hellenic Museum, 280 William Street, Melbourne.
Dates: Fri 14th March to 16th March.
Times: Fri 14th and Sat 15th March at 7:30pm, Sunday 16th March (Greek Language Showing) at 5pm.
Venue: York Theatre at the Seymour Centre, cnr City Rd & Cleveland St, Chippendale
Tickets: Adult: $40, Conc. $35 (+ booking fee)
Bookings at www.socratesnow.com.au