Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (in an elegant version by Edward Kemp), is an extraordinarily powerful and moving piece of theatre. Written 250 years ago and set in the latter part of the 12th Century, the play questions the basis of our faith, religious identity and, above all, calls for religious tolerance. Under the Chichester’s ‘new management’ and Steven Pimlott’s sensitive direction, it is a brave and thoroughly worthwhile enterprise.
Lessing, a true visionary of the European Enlightenment, witnessed the treatment of Jews by fellow Germans in his own town and sought to address this in a thinly veiled allegory of religious intolerance set six centuries earlier. Indeed, so unpalatable was the message to the Nazis, that the play was banned during their era.
Set during the period of the Crusades when the great Sultan, Saladin, controlled Jerusalem a group of Muslims, Jews, and Christians in the war torn city discover the innate goodness of humankind. It is a story that is both timely and timeless, with particular resonance to continuing religious conflicts today. As the Templar, Conrad, says: "The prejudices of our race… are bred onto our bones".
The theme of the play grew out of Bocaccio’s Parable of the Three Rings, and the story concerns Nathan, the rich and wise Jewish merchant, who returns home to learn that his daughter, Rachel has been rescued from a fire by Conrad, a wandering Knight. But their inherent prejudices prevent them from connecting with each other until a series of discoveries allows them to embrace their common heritage.
Effectively played out on a harshly lit (but brilliantly so, by Hugh Vanstone) stage, bare save for some rocks, the fine cast boasts some outstanding performances. Michael Feast as the pious Jew, Nathan, uses subtle accent and intonation, yet avoids caricature, and delivers a performance so understated but so compelling, that, after a three-hour journey the audience is drawn to tears. This is a real star turn.
Jeffrey Kissoon, as Saladin also delivers a sympathetic performance while Geoffrey Streatfield gives a good account of the hot-headed and impetuous Templar. It is also good to see Alfred Burke again as the vindictive and narrow-minded Christian Patriarch.
The play is may be long (overlong some would say), and rather static (deliberately so), but, supplemented by perfect delivery and performances to die for, it stays with you long after you leave the theatre. As Kemp puts it: ‘Must Jews and Christians always be Jews and Christians… it is enough to be a man’.
- Stephen Gilchrist