Socrates: Could have been better

2017-04-24 00:34:53

Jayalath Manorathna in a scene from Socrates


It was a delight to see the name “Socrates” on a billboard, advertising a  play with Jayalath Manoratne playing the Greek philosopher, who was sentenced to death, accused of corrupting the minds of the young. 
It is a bold theme nowadays for the Sinhala theatre, which looks pedestrian and small-minded, having lost almost its entire capacity to take on intellectual themes and classics from the international stage. 
The staging of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Sinhala last month was a rare glimmer of hope but one misses Sugathapala de Silva and Marat-Sade on the one hand and Henry Jayasena and ‘Hunuwataye Kathawa’ on the other. In that context, a play which can take on a big idea is welcome indeed.
‘Socrates’ is neither a translation nor an adaptation of a foreign play. The script has been written by Prof. Sunanda Mahendra and the play directed by Nimal Ekanayake, with music by Navaratne Gamage. 
The cast included Wasantha Wittachchi, Chamila Pieris, Lal Kularatne, Sanjeewa Dissanayake, Richard Manamudali, Susil Wickremasinghe and others.
Unfortunately, this production leaves much to be desired. Some of the dialogues were delivered too rapidly and hence unintelligible. The play focuses on key events in the latter part of Socrates’ life, but fails to come alive. The use of masks in several scenes reinforces the sense of a classical Greek tragedy, but such devices cannot make up for the lack of dramatic force.
The Clouds, a satirical comedy by Aristophanes, is central to the plot of ‘Socrates.’ There are three contemporary historical sources about Socrates – Aristophanes, Xenophon and Plato (Xenophon was a pupil of Socrates). Aristophanes was mostly negative about the philosopher, while Xenophon and Plato were positive. 



For example, Aristophanes claimed that Socrates was a sophist and accepted money for his teaching, while the latter two both denied this. Aristophanes denied too, that Socrates died a martyr’s death, while Xenophon said it was a voluntary suicide and Plato said that Socrates died as a hero for truth.
Aristophanes lampooned Socrates and Athenian intellectual fashions in his 
play The Clouds. 
Plato believed that the play was directly responsible for the trial and condemnation of Socrates. But other historical sources do not attribute such influence to the play, which was initially badly received by the public.  According to one Greek source, when foreigners in the audience began asking who this Socrates was during a performance, the then middle-aged philosopher who was watching the play silently got up to answer that question.
Jayalath Manoratne as a very mature actor succeeds in getting under the skin of his role-that of a septuagenarian man of intellect puzzled that his ideas for a better world should earn the wrath of those who ruled. 
It is a classic case of the individual against the State. But he was not a solitary individual; Socrates had a significant following, especially among the young, fed up with the 
established order. 



"Jayalath Manoratne as a very mature actor succeeds in getting under the skin of his role-that of a septuagenarian man of intellect puzzled that his ideas for a better world should earn the wrath of those who ruled. "



He was a rebel without a politically volatile ‘ism’. Instead of workers’ stomachs, Socrates wants to bring relief to the brains of a new generation starved of new ideas. But the ruling class is rattled by his ideas.
The trouble is that Manoratne does not physically fit the Socrates, we know from historical sources. It is generally accepted that he came from the lower classes. His father was a stone mason. As a young man, he was a soldier in the Athenian army, part of its armoured infantry. Though a short figure, he must have been physically very strong, and his bravery is attested for by contemporary sources.
Manoratne does not fit this description. He looks erudite, which he should be. But you can’t believe he’d ever been a soldier, nor is there any reference to that part of Socrates’ life. There is one effective scene where two parents, who put their son under Socrates’ tutelage, are shocked when the son returns home as a madman. 
This episode with its surrealistic mood is the best in the entire play. But other scenes do not match up to this, and the use of stage props and lighting leaves much to be desired.
One should be glad that a production of this magnitude has been undertaken, but one could also wish it could have been better. 

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