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The Short Answer


Time Out London, 7th-14th September 2005, Rachel Halliburton


When Edward Kemp talks about adapting the German Enlightenment play ‘Nathan the Wise’ for the twenty-first century, it sounds as if he hasn’t so much reworked a script as tamed a  monster. “If you put the whole of the original on stage, it would last six hours,” he declares. Its gargantuan length was almost the least of its problems: the play is filled with lengthy philosophical soliloquies, written in awkward verse, and lumbered with a highly improbable ending. “The first time I read it,” Kemp admits, “after wading my way through the play, I thought ‘Right, never think about putting that one on stage.’ ”


Over the next decade two events ensued which were completely unconnected, but together did much to make ‘Nathan the Wise’ a serious contender for a modern British audience. One was the appointment of three audacious artistic directors – Ruth Mackenzie, Steven Pimlott and Martin Duncan – to Chichester Festival Theatre. The other was the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. Pimlott, who approached Kemp to do the adaptation, had long wanted to stage ‘Nathan the Wise’ as a companion piece to ‘The Merchant of Venice’, partly because as Kemp puts it, “in simplistic terms it’s also about a Jew, but Nathan is depicted as a good Jew”. Post 9/11, the play’s key themes of religious tolerance and the relationship between Christians, Muslims and Jews had also been catapulted on to the front pages – which was one of the reasons this great beast of a work looked far more approachable.


When Pimlott first called on Kemp to do the adaptation, neither of them had the faintest idea that it would be so successful that people would be fighting for tickets on its last night. Now, as Hampstead Theatre prepares to put on its own production based on Kemp’s text, he tries to explain what it was about Gotthold Lessing’s play that inspired him after the first unfortunate encounter. “I began to sense that somewhere inside this immense thing, if one could release the essence of what Lessing was trying to say, then maybe one could make it work. I’ve been fairly faithful to Lessing, but I’ve rearranged bits of the play to improve the narrative for what is actually a good rip-roaring, double-crossing, who’s going to get who kind of story, with lots of Shakespearean twists and turns.”


So it was that twenty-first century British audiences were introduced to Nathan, a wise and extremely wealthy Jewish merchant who loved in Jerusalem during the twelfth century. After a long trip abroad, he returns to discover that his beloved adopted daughter Rachel would have died in a fire – had she not been rescued by a passing Knight Templar. Her resulting infatuation with the knight inevitably raises intellectual and emotional questions about their inter-faith relationship – questions which aren’t helped by the knight’s devious behaviour.


Despite its obscure status in Britain, ‘Nathan the Wise’, along with its benign and tolerant hero, is known all over Europe. After Schiller cut it to a manageable length, Kemp explains, “it never lost its place in the German repertoire. Except of course under the Nazis, when it was completely verboten.”


The Hampstead opening comes at a simultaneously precarious and prolific point in Kemp’s career. The troika at Chichester Festival Theatre are stepping down, which means that his position as the theatre’s dramaturge is currently left dangling. Yet Kemp is undoubtedly in demand: this year no fewer than five of his works are being put on – including a sitcom for Radio 4, a musical, a ballet version of Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’, a new play about the Gunpowder Plot called ‘5/11’ – “the largest new play anywhere this year” – and, of course, ‘Nathan the Wise’. Even given his extensive experience as a writer and a director 2005 seems a particularly impressive year.


So what next? At this moment almost anything seems possible. For now, Kemp is happy working in a theatrical world which, post 9/11, is tackling the major questions about life, death, faith and politics. “These issues are in my bloodstream, they’re the personal itch I want to scratch,” declares the former Bishop of Chichester’s son. “If everyone else wants to talk about them, that’s fantastic to me.”


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