- Title: Nathan the Wise
- Written by: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
- In a version by: Edward Kemp
- Director: Birgit Schreyer Duarte
- Actors: Diane Flacks, Danny Ghantous, Jakob Ehman
- Company: Stratford Festival
- Venue: Studio Theatre
- City: Stratford, Ont.
- Year: Runs to October 11, 2019
The Enlightenment-era German-language playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was a controversial crusader for religious tolerance in his time.
In our time, however, Nathan the Wise – his 1779 parable now getting a production at the Stratford Festival – can seem about as contentious as a Tim Hortons commercial.
It’s set in Jerusalem in 1192, during the Third Crusade, when the city was ruled by the Muslim sultan Saladin, and Christian forces in Western Europe were trying to reconquer it.
None of that history particularly matters, however, in director Birgit Schreyer Duarte’s production, which is moved to an alternative-universe Jerusalem that looks like the present day, where peddlers sell bottles of Fanta and troops with automatic weapons are everywhere.
Nathan (Diane Flacks), a rich Jewish merchant, returns from a business trip abroad to learn that, in his absence, his daughter, Rachel (Oksana Sirju), was saved from a fire by a Knight Templar (Jakob Ehman) who, earlier that same day, had himself been spared from death by Saladin (Danny Ghantous).
While this may initially be depicted as a miracle of miracles – that a Muslim would save a Christian, or a Christian risk his life for a Jew – when Lessing has his characters actually meet in scenes, the unlikely interfaith chain of events loses some of its power.
Religious differences inevitably dissipate almost immediately and they are, almost without fail, a bunch of humanists in religious clothing. There’s a dreamy utopianism to the depiction of how quickly, for instance, Nathan goes from describing the Knight Templar as “so gallant and so full of hate” to hoping to match-make him with his smitten daughter.
(Lessing’s verse drama is staged here in a condensed English-language, 9/11-influenced prose version by Edward Kemp that premiered at the Chichester Festival in 2003 and then had its Canadian premiere at Soulpepper in Toronto the following year.)
Nathan the Wise may have been unperformed until after Lessing’s death and been banned again in Nazi Germany, but characters of different backgrounds essentially getting along is not a particularly gripping narrative. Well, outside of Come From Away, anyway, of which an early scene of interfaith prayer that Duarte has added in briefly reminds.
Eventually, the play does acquire some weight when we learn of the trauma in certain characters’ pasts and the Christian Patriarch (Harry Nelken) discovers information that threatens Nathan’s life.
But, at the same time, it’s always clear that the play is spiralling toward a light ending and the revelation of a series of secret identities as in a Shakespearean comedy. (Lessing was, according to Kemp, one of the first great German champions of the English bard.)
The tree that designer Teresa Przybylski has centred her set around summarizes the play in a single object – metal roots rising into branches so twisted that you can’t tell which leads to which.
What Nathan the Wise does have at Stratford is a transcendent central performance by Flacks in her Stratford debut; the Toronto-based actor is known primarily for performing in her own plays, such as Unholy (a more recent and relevant play about religion).
Her luminous, feeling Nathan is as wily as he is wise, and she does a wonderful job of dramatizing the way he wields his “wisdom” in self-defence.
This is particularly so in the play’s most famous scene, in which Saladin demands Nathan tell him which faith is the true one, and he responds with a parable. That Flacks is a woman playing a male role is not made a big deal of – spectators may not even notice, so deep is she in the part – but for a moment here, you might see her Nathan as a Scheherazade whose seductive storytelling is also a survival mechanism.
Two other notable Stratford debuts: Miranda Calderon, who turns the somewhat sidelined character of Saladin’s sister into a fascinating figure even when she’s just observing; and Ehman as the short-tempered Knight Templar, feisty throughout.
Making her own debut at Stratford as a director, Duarte, who has done some remarkable work in Toronto, takes a conservative approach, delivering a modern-dress production with only a few tentative flourishes.
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect the new face to satisfy the desire for a more daring and director-driven approach to the classics. But then again, the last time we saw a Lessing play at Stratford was in 2008, when the Deutsches Theater visited with German director Michael Thalheimer’s dynamic distillation of Emilia Galotti and fireworks were, literally, set off in the Avon Theatre.
So far, this Stratford season has lacked that kind of spark and been overly safe and actor-focused; you can feel the absence of the mid-sized Tom Patterson Theatre, which is being rebuilt, keenly.
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