Aristophanes’ play The Clouds is better known for its caricature of Socrates than for its literary merits; this newly adapted production slaps the philosopher’s name on the poster – and his school in the face. William Lyons’ adaptation makes the odd decision of removing the play’s title image to make the chorus of clouds “three ‘foreign’ women”, and Socrates appears in a bathtub, rather than the basket of a hot air balloon – a play of elevated ideas is brought thudding down to earth.
The relationship of father-son duo Strepsiades and Phidippides is being shaken by young Phiddy’s gambling debts, so his brick-laying father decides to nix his layabout ways and get him an education, as preparation for a job. Strep is impressed by Socrates’ bamboozling way with words, and after a brief, disastrous sojourn at the philosopher’s academy himself, truculent Phiddy signs up.
The pair’s East End accents make for the odd bit of “keep yer tunic on” fun, but there were lots of missed opportunities to sharpen up the satire; Phiddy’s horse obsession could have been swapped for going down the dogs, his wine for strong cider. As it was, their jokes were vague and vulgar. Former lawyer Alexander Andreou’s Socrates was more a polished quibbler than a clownish buffoon, his performance contributing to the oddly staid tone, which was unlightened by a chorus as darkly mutinous as waitresses at closing time. They might not be the high-kicking type, but a little comedy and variety wouldn’t go amiss.
In Melina Theocharidou’s production, the central debate has been mined for topical relevance. Is the role of education to instil knowledge for knowledge’s sake, or to secure a job? Its not a question that no one’s asking, but in the era of apprenticeships and high fees, a play where an impoverished father drags an unwilling son to university doesn’t feel dazzlingly current.
Admittedly, there is a shiny new campus up the road churning out certificates, but the resulting cracks at Gove felt painted on, as insubstantial as the set’s polystyrene columns.
At Socrates’s Academy, chorus members are pressed into service for a dialogue between Reason and Persuasion, while Phiddy’s heckling is particularly agonising. What could be a show-piece debate becomes a baffling rattle through the text, making Socrates’ establishment look like a tinpot language school.
According to Plato, The Clouds was a contributing factor in Socrates’ eventual trial and death by poison. Here, any criticism or caricature of Socrates is lost in a mire of cross-century confusion, and the atmosphere is deadened by a rising hemlock chill.