Socrates and His Clouds

William Lyons
The Meddlers Theatre Company
Jermyn Street Theatre

Socrates and His Clouds
P}aul Hutton as Strepsiades and Jack Montgomery as Phidippides Credit: Katerina Angelopoulou

Although inspired by Aristophanes’ fifth century BC comedy The Clouds, this is not an adaptation of that play but rather a reworking of some of its elements to a different purpose.

Aristophanes savagely satirised Socrates and his Academy and Plato claimed that it contributed to the philosopher being tried and sentenced to taking hemlock.

Aristophanes’ titular Cloud chorus has gone, replaced here by three sinuously bopping ladies who, by the way they weave their hands together, are probably the Fates, who also double for other characters including members of Socrates’ Academy—women seem to have gained some emancipation in this Athens—but Lyons has kept the characters of Strepsiades (here a bricklayer) and his layabout son Phidippides.

Strepsiades is plagued by money, debts run up by his boy’s gambling and extravagant living. He wants the boy to get an education, one that will get him a well-paid job and after investigating Socrates and his school thinks that might be the place to send him.

Paul Hutton gives Strepsiades an instant comic reality and rapidly establishes a rapport with the audience. Jack Montgomery’s Phiddy is an excellent pairing, exactly the spoiled-child selfish brat we are told his mother has made him. The hectic nature of their lively double act is set against the warm gentleness of Alexander Andreou’s Socrates. The philosopher is a big fellow, first seen scrubbing in his oil-barrel bath tub, who seems to treat every thought as a fresh idea, a good fellow to share a glass with and a charismatic teacher.

The heart of the play is in the debate he sets up between proponents of reason and persuasion as methods of winning an argument. In one short scene, Lyons encapsulates the question of what is education for: should it stretch the mind and develop the person or is it vocational training that is important, improving life or making money? There’s no doubt what Socrates intends, but he doesn’t push ideas down people’s throats, and Phiddy follows persuasion to its extremes of violence.

There is an earthy vitality to Lyons's play. He has a knack for putting words together so that they sound good but he doesn’t indulge in the bawdiness that was such a large part of ancient comedy. The plot has no satisfactory resolution, that’s left to the audience, but there is a final farewell “Exodos” from the Chorus to send them happily on their way. Riana Athanasiou, Lucyelle Cliffe and Rahil Liapopoulou bid farewell with the same tuneful energy as they have brought through the play.

Melina Theocharidou’s production has found a style that perfectly matches this text. She is well served by Katerina Angelopolou’s colourful design with its simple setting of clouds sketched on a blue back wall and white pillar drums rearranged to suit the scene. Although I could have done with less complicated changes which interrupt the action, they are an opportunity for some beautiful music from composer Olivios Karaoides, who also provides the settings for the chorus numbers. His music cries out for movement and it would be great to see this made into more of a musical.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton