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The Theatreguide.London Review

Nathan the Wise
Hampstead Theatre      Autumn 2005

In the middle of Gotthold Ephrian Lessing's 1779 play the title character tells an extended parable whose moral is that only God can know which of the West's three major religions - Judaism, Christianity or Islam -is the One True Faith, and so their adherents should try to live with the grace of possibly being right and the humility of possibly being wrong.

That kind of wisdom, coloured with romanticism and even sentimentality, infuses the whole play, and only the most devout follower of the religion of cynicism should try to resist its appeal and charm.

Our hero is a wealthy 12th-century Jew living in Jerusalem, a man of such probity and good sense that both the pasha Saladin and a knight crusader are drawn to embrace his friendship.

Indeed, all three becomef riends, even though they have to fight ingrained prejudices and tread carefully through the minefields of religious geopolitics to do so.

There's a somewhat melodramatic plot involving Nathan's adopted daughter running through all this, though anyone who can't within the first hour predict the surprise twists that will permit the unlikely but happy ending isn't paying attention.

No, the main purpose of the play is to allow three men of good will to push their way past all the obstacles to recognise and appreciate the humanity and good will of each of the others.

And yes, of course that itself is a parable, one whose moral was quite advanced in the 18th Century and sadly just as needed today.

Edward Kemp's translation is smooth and natural-sounding without lapsing into jarring anachronisms, and Anthony Clark wisely directs the only way a play this old should be directed, by fully embracing it, stylistic awkwardnesses, melodramatic tinges and all, with nary a hint of self-protective ironic distancing.

Michael Pennington clearly enjoys playing a character so warm and intelligent, investing him with his own air of solid good sense. Saladin is written as a bit of a cartoon character and the knight as something of a cardboard dashing young man, but Vincent Ebrahim and Sam Troughton go far toward making them real and attractive. The supporting cast are inevitably uneven but generally more than adequate.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Nathan The Wise - Hampstead Theatre 2005


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