The flames of religious intolerance don't so much blaze as smoulder in Nathan the Wise, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's 1779 fable about a benevolent Jew forging a revolutionary accord between a bigoted Christian knight and Jerusalem's wary Muslim leader.
Set in the Holy City in 1192 at the time of the Third Crusade, its exploration of multi-faith co-existence cannot help but strike a chord at a time when fundamentalism is the cause of so much strife in the world. Yet you never feel very much is at stake in Anthony Clark's leisurely production, which is as stately and unruffled as Michael Pennington's genial central performance.
From the Merchant of Venice subplot - cash-starved Sultan Saladin (Vincent Ebrahim) approaching wealthy businessman Nathan for a loan - to its Winterís Tale-tinged resolution, Shakespeare is a constant presence in Clark's production. (So, alas, is pantomime, with Ebrahim resembling Ali Baba in his curved slippers and feathered turban.) But such familiar tropes are only used to facilitate reasoned debate on the nature of religion and the possibility of rival faiths finding a common ground through civilised, articulate dialogue.
"Religion is about party politics," says Nathan sardonically, subtly proving the point in one pivotal scene with a parable about three sons bickering over their late father's inheritance. Not every scene can boast this kind of clarity, however, the convoluted narrative sending the play in circles rather than towards a satisfying resolution. And for all its opulent trappings and poetic eloquence, after two-and-a-half sluggish hours the message - hey, can't we all just try to get along? - remains a faintly trite one.
Thankfully it's not all hugs and humility. Anna Carteret provides a welcome shaft of steel as Nathan's bitter wife Daya, as frustrated with his stoic temperance as we come to be, while Sam Troughton supplies much-needed heat as the fiery Templar torn between his desire for Nathan's daughter Rachel (Celia Meiras) and his deep-seated racial hatred. "This is the Promised Land, and I have lost a legion of prejudice!" he exclaims, though his virulent anti-Semitism tells a different story.
Still, it's a pity there is not more of his dynamism in the production as a whole, which rarely conveys its admirable sentiments with the energy and fervour they deserve.
- Neil Smith