A Lesson from Lessing
When Soulpepper Theatre Company was founded at Harbourfront Centre seven years ago to fill a cultural summer-void in our fair city and the classical repertoire theatre scene, instantly we marveled at the high quality of productions. The inaugural season, as well as subsequent ones, ventured into many cultures, also into the German one. Initial skepticism made way to a full blast of admiration, even gratefulness, for the German soul was fully understood in the presentation of Schiller’s Don Carlos; numerous awards have been won since.
And again one of Germany’s great literary minds is hitting Toronto with a huge chunk of inescapable logic and compassion, not an easy feat by any means at any time.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s "Nathan the Wise" ventures into the realm of religious zealots and holds a mirror to their fanatic faces and facilities. All too familiar sound the righteous mumblings of those that think that only their god and their teachings are the only ones.
In this play the 3 major religions of the Holy Land are explored in a fictitious setting of Jerusalem, at the time of the crusaders, after Richard the Lion Heart had left his mark there and was elevated to mythical greatness.
The Jew Nathan is well to do, well connected and well loved, for he is industrious as a trader, well informed and tolerant, perhaps because of his many travels to far shores and his dealings with many different cultures, and he has compassion, perhaps because of his own hardships and painfully won convictions after suffering. Portrayed by veteran actor William Webster, who is also a founder of Soulpepper, this complex character takes on very real proportions for a very real problem. We experience a loving father, a generous employer, a gracious host, a good friend and a humble worshiper, all mixed together with a good dose of common sense, which turns out, is not so common. For extreme problems require wisdom more than anything else, the kind that makes Solomon look like having only common sense.
Nathan’s ability to be able to translate the religious conundrum of the various fractions - Christendom, Islam and Judaism - into a simple story, an analogy of human experience easily related to by any one, speaks of more than common sense or cleverness, in fact this skill puts all zealots to shame and offers a real solution to the problem, and if not to the problem, then at least a way out of the dilemma for the individual. Thus, in the play the current ruler of Jerusalem, Sultan Saladin, played movingly by Andrew Moodie, can rise beyond his limitations and escape scheming temptations and advice, - sometimes by his own sister Sittah, played by Karen Robinson - and show true leadership and fatherly compassion in the resolutions of the problems of the day.
Translated by Edward Kemp the play is transmuted into palatable English, but remains a drama, and does not become a comedy, as other reviews have suggested. This is not a piece of fluff but an earnest attempt at explaining some of the intricacies of religious and political disharmony as it has existed as long as these same fractions have been players in life. To nod it away as an uninspired attempt that does not capture the imagination is a non-confront of the essence of the problem addressed in this piece.
Every actor brought to his/her character and to the story aspects of their own humanity as well as the director’s vision. Tim Albery of Canadian Opera fame (Peter Grimes) knows well how difficult it can be to dive into the complexities of human nature embroiled in political and philosophical rhetoric. He deftly leads the viewer through this maze, which easily could become a soap opera, but does not. He understands that even in tragedy there is humor present, thus we can occasionally laugh, probably in recognition of our own realized and unrevealed shortcomings. He shows us the various sides of the coin, like Lessing points out more than one side of each religion discussed. The Christian Patriarch, played with just the right amount of pompous self-gratification by David Calderisi, is balanced by the youthful Templar Conrad, who is played by an accurately "tortured" Dusan Dukic.
Bonafides, played by Derek Boyes with much compassion, relays the humbleness of Christian charity, while Barbara Gordon as the Christian woman in the Jew’s household thinks dutifully of herself and the interest of the person in her care, Nathan’s daughter Rachel, pretty and eager to please her father and herself, played by Cara Pifco, who turns out not to be his child.
On the Muslim side we have Al-Hafy the Dervish to balance the books of conscience, played very convincingly in his predicament by Vik Sahay.
All this is stylized into a set that transports us in its minimalism into a desert setting of symbols of old. Sand and hearth, rocks and pillars of wisdom, an intellectual board game of strategy, all surrounded by many heavy volumes of leather-bound wisdom.
Sadly, all this did not communicate aptly into the consciousness of the viewer. They barely managed one curtain call to our embarrassment.
I do not think that it had anything to do with the production, but rather with the lack of willingness of the viewers to deal with the problem. People came to be entertained and found instead that they were asked to deal with an ancient yet current problem, one that has not been solved in thousands of years, thus creating a bit of hopelessness in the onlooker.
Perhaps this play should be remounted in the regular season somewhere to find the impact it deserves to make on our collective awareness.
Regardless, Lessing’s Nathan the Wise production by Soulpepper put a little pepper into my soul!
For scheduling of this and other plays call the Box Office: 416-973-4000 or go to www.soulpepper.ca
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