Nathan the Wise

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, translated by Edward Kemp
Hampstead Theatre
(2005)

There seems to be a fashion for creating allegories about the tripartite religious conflict in Jerusalem. During the Edinburgh Festival and in Birmingham, Shan Khan's The Prayer Room took a view from a university campus.

With this revival of a play written 225 years ago, Edward Kemp, who would better be described as an adapter than a translator, goes back almost a millennium to the days of Saladin and the Crusaders.

From the start, Kemp's slangy modern language jars with the action taking place on stage. Therefore on one level we are watching activities in a time and place that is strange, Jerusalem in the middle of the 11th century. However, the cheery chit-chat simultaneously directed by artistic director Anthony Clark is very much that of England today.

This is not helped by Patrick Connellan's attractive but sizable set in which the characters, generally appearing on stage in small numbers, get swallowed up.

This does a disservice to a parable of religious unity written by a German playwright who is now largely unknown in United Kingdom. Long before the end, Lessing's message has disappeared into a light situation comedy.

Nathan, played by Michael Pennington, is a very wealthy old Jew whose wisdom lies in building alliances and friendships with everybody he meets. The only exception is his angry wife, Anna Carteret's Christian Daya.

When Nathan returns from a business trip he finds that his home has almost burned down and his daughter, Rachel (Celia Meiras) saved by a kind of Crusader Superman who has subsequently disappeared.

Sam Troughton plays this angry German Knight Templar who, like so many others in this play, is searching for himself.

The other key players are the notorious Saladin, here played by Vincent Ebrahim as a dimly affable man rather than the monster that history normally portrays, and his sister, Sittah (Shelley King) who constantly looks as if she will do evil but never quite gets round to the action.

Eventually, at the end of two and three quarter hours of potential religious warfare, some coincidental parentage of which Shakespeare would have been proud leaves everybody living happily ever after and in perfect harmony. Would that the same could be said about Jerusalem today!

Reviewer: Philip Fisher