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Nathan the Wise

 

Evening Standard 20th September 2005, Fiona Mountford

 

It says a lot about our troubled sensibilities that, on witnessing a host of potentially explosive showdowns between Jew and Christian, Muslim and Jew, we automatically fear the worst. Especially as the setting is Jerusalem, 1192, at the time of the Third Crusade. Then, as now, the Holy Land was no stranger to blood spilled due to religious intolerance.

 

But such negativity discounts the fact that ‘Nathan the Wise’ (1779) is the work of that great writer, humanist and all-round optimist of the German Enlightenment, Gotthold Lessing. Thus his most famous play, inexplicably unproduced in London for nearly 40 years, upliftingly preaches tolerance and multi-faith co-existence.

 

The three great monotheistic religions come into contact via the sultan Saladin, a young Knight Templar and the eponymous Jew. An intricate web of connections is woven, as the Templar rescues Nathan’s daughter from a fire and the bankrupt Saladin asks the wealthy merchant for help.

 

When Edward Kemp’s confident new translation was first heard two years ago at Chichester it graced a suitably accomplished production. Too often here, director Anthony Clark lets the tone go worryingly flat. Some below-par performances and uneven line learning don’t help.

 

But Michael Pennington steadies everything with his astute Nathan, sidestepping Saladin’s importuning with 1001 Nights-style storytelling. Sam Troughton’s Templar is all proud, impetuous, youthful conviction and Vincent Ebrahim as Saladin has a lovely way of making the most unpromising-sounding statements end positively.

 

Patrick Connellan’s evocative design has palm trees overhang a backdrop of burnished gold sliding panels and a typical mosaic design printed on the wooden floor. It’s a tranquil aesthetic, suitable for this unusual fable of the still, small voice of peace winning through in the Middle East.

 

 

Guardian, 20th September 2005, Michael Billington

 

This is a play whose time has come again. First, G E Lessing’s classic of German Enlightenment drama was picked up by Chichester in 2003. Now we have the same brilliantly lucid translation by Edward Kemp, but a slightly less dynamic production. But no matter: this is a play eminently worth seeing.

 

Set in Jerusalem in 1192, it seems a straightforward plea for mutual toleration between Jew, Muslim and Christian. The eponymous protagonist is a shrewd Jewish merchant who finds himself caught between the worlds of Saladin and the Crusaders. In a key scene he is forced by the sultan to arbitrate between the claims of the rival faiths. He answers with a riddling fable, derived from Boccaccio, which suggests that no one religion has a monopoly of wisdom. Instead, we should strive for “gentleness, tolerance, charity and a deep humility before the love of God”.

 

The message could hardly be more timely. But Lessing’s action is at odds with his theme. Nathan is wise and virtuous, but Christianity is represented by an intemperate Knight Templar who is all young, hotheaded and full of antisemitic arrogance. As Eric Bentley pointed out, the play is really addressed to Christians, telling them to mend their ways. It moves beyond preachiness to show the need for reconciliation and harmony, it cannot fail to move.

 

But Anthony Clark’s production, in aiming for period fidelity, ends up looking like an exotic Aladdin; this is a world, in Patrick Connellan’s design, of pearly turbans, curled slippers and flower-encrusted robes. The production is also a little too laid-back, as if the battle for mutual understanding has been achieved before the action has begun. That said, Michael Pennington endows Nathan with just the right mixture of wiliness, wisdom and judicious stoicism. Sam Troughton’s Templar is the epitome of impetuous, brazen folly. And, even if, Vincent Ebrahim’s Saladin is hardly the lion demanded by the text, Shelley King lends his sister with a wonderful sinuous guile. But what really matters is Lessing’s play: a seminal piece of world drama written in 1779 and banned by the Nazis in 1933, its theme speaks urgently and forcefully to us today.

 

 

Metro, 21st September 2005, Robert Shore

 

Rather improbably, German Enlightenment drama has already provided some of the year’s theatrical highlights in London. And now, following on from successful productions of Schiller’s ‘Don Carlos’ and ‘Mary Stuart’, audiences are tempted back to the stalls with Gotthold Lessing’s fable of religions tolerance, ‘Nathan the Wise’, written in 1779 and set in Jerusalem during the Crusades.

 

When his adopted daughter is saved by a Knight Templar, the Jewish merchant Nathan finds himself caught between the rival worlds of Muslims and Christians, needing to promote “unprejudiced affection” among his multi-faith neighbours.

 

Obviously this is a play rich in resonance for contemporary audiences. And while I’m not sure it contains any answers to the world’s current woes, it certainly makes for an entertaining and morally inspiring evening. Edward Kemp’s prose translation of Lessing’s poetic original is lucid and peppy, although there is a sense that the action’s poetic logic would be better served by verse.

 

Oddly, Anthony Clark’s lively production has a certain pantomime air. You find yourself wanting to shout: “Behind you!” when Justin Avoth’s unfeasibly wicked Patriarch makes his entrance.

 

But that’s not inappropriate: ‘Nathan the Wise’ belongs to the same moral universe as Shakespeare’s late plays, where the mysterious workings of providence ensure the triumph of the forces of goodness and tolerance, whatever the apparent odds. Alas, it’s not realism.

 

 

The Daily Telegraph, 21st September 2005, Charles Spencer

 

If ever a dusty old play spoke urgently and movingly to our current concerns, it is ‘Nathan the Wise’ (1779) by the German dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

 

A product of enlightenment values so sadly eclipsed in these troubled times, its plea for religious tolerance and a brotherhood of common humanity seems almost unbearably poignant when religious hatred seems to be rearing its head everywhere.

 

The play was banned by the Nazis for its sympathetic depiction of a Jew. And were he alive today, Lessing would probably be the subject of a fatwa from the Muslims. For this is a play that forcefully and beautifully argues that no one faith has a monopoly on truth and that what matters isn’t the religion we choose to follow, but the way we behave as people.

 

The action is set in Jerusalem in 1192 at the time of the third Crusade, a reminder that Christians once fought their own Jihad. Caught between the Christians and the Muslim leader Saladin is Nathan, a rich, wise Jew who has brought up an orphaned Christian girl, Rachel, as his own daughter.

 

An arrogant Knight Templar, reprieved from execution by Saladin, falls in lover with her after rescuing her from a fire, agonising with his conscience as he believes her to be Jewish.

 

The plot develops into a fascinatingly complex knot involving Christians, Muslims and Jews, and Lessing untangles it with subtlety, grace and a final scene of revelation and reconciliation reminiscent of late Shakespeare.

 

Edward Kemp’s fine translation, which combines Germanic seriousness with a winning English wit, and cuts the sprawling four-and-a-half hour original down to a manageable playing time of less than three hours, was first presented in Chichester in 2003.

 

All credit to Hampstead’s artistic director, Anthony Clark, for recognising that the piece deserved a wider audience. However, his own production fails to match the lucidity and searching intelligence of Steven Pimlott’s staging in the Minerva Studio.

 

While Pimlott opted for a stark white-box design and dress that simultaneously suggested ancient and modern, Clark has gone foe the gilded palm trees and oriental costumes that might have been borrowed from a panto Aladdin – all curly slippers and silly turbans.

 

The acting is sometimes rough too. Noël Coward’s advice to actors was to remember their lines and not to bump onto the scenery, but in a wretched performance on the first night, Anna Carteret failed both these rudimentary tests as Rachel’s Christian guardian, Daya.

 

Vincent Ebrahim captures the wit, but misses the dangerous power, of Saladin and Celia Meiras is dismayingly bland as Rachel. And though Michael Pennington gives a benignly twinkling performance as Nathan, coming on with all the reassuring folksiness of Rabbi Lionel Blue, he fails to locate the intense spirituality that Michael Feast discovered in the character in Chichester.

 

The best performance comes from Sam Troughton as the arrogant Templar, whom he plays as a mass of insecurity, religious prejudice and dangerous mood-swings, and there is strong support from Justin Avoth doubling as a delightful dervish and a sinister Christian patriarch.

 

But don’t let the occasional inadequacies of the acting put you off. Not only is ‘Nathan the Wise’ both relevant and resonant, it is also one of those rare plays where you genuinely want to know what will happen next.

 

A word of caution though, to Christian fundamentalists already simmering with rage over ‘Jerry Springer – the Opera’ and Howard Brenton’s forthcoming play about St Paul: in Lessing’s dramatic vision of religious tension, the devious Christians are by some distance the least attractive characters in the play.

 

 

Daily Mail, 23rd September 2005, PM

 

As in ‘Playing With Fire’ at the National Theatre, multicultural issues are meant to be distilled into this drama, billed as “a plea for religious tolerance” and ser in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades.

 

And on the face of it, the 18th-century German work by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing seems every inch a play for today as Jews, Muslims and Christians try to get along. But the fact that it was once banned by the Nazis lends it kudos it doesn’t deserve. The story is little more than a piece of half-baked melodrama.

 

The central dilemma involves a rich Jewish merchant who’s been raising his Christian daughter secretly as a Jew. This is the cause of moral outrage in a devout young Christian crusader who happens to have saved the young woman in question from a fire. And although a local abbot gets a bit hot under the cassock, too, the ruling sultan takes it all in his pointy-toed stride – after all, it’s really no big deal.

 

Instead of the terrifying predicament Shakespeare conjures up with Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Lessing allows the action to drift into Teutonic posturing and the sort of farcical coincidence even Bollywood producers might sniff at. It’s a mystery, then, as to why Anthony Clark deemed the play suitable for the Hampstead – a home of new writing which has traditionally tackled the issues of the day.  Clark’s sluggish production finds little conflict in the scenes and establishes no clear overall tone, comic or otherwise.

 

The occasional boisterousness of Edward Kemp’s generally bland translation is rarely exploited and it feels like an olde worlde episode of ‘The Archers’, only less racy.

 

Torn between the Muslims after his money and the Christian crusader after his daughter, Michael Pennington’s wise old merchant Nathan faces a choice: prophet or loss. Although Nathan has experienced his own personal tragedies, Pennington makes him so nice he’s no longer interesting. And the fact that he is besieged by some very un-kosher ham-acting leaves him looking none too clever.

 

 

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