Stage Door Review

Nathan the Wise

Monday, June 17, 2019

✭✭✭✩

by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, translated by Edward Kemp, directed by Birgit Schreyer Duarte

Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford

May 27-October 27, 2019

Nathan: “Unwarped of prejudice, let each endeavour

To vie with both his brothers in displaying

The virtue of his ring; assist its might

With gentleness, benevolence, forbearance,

With inward resignation to the godhead” (Act 3, Scene 7)

At long last the Stratford Festival is presenting Nathan the Wise, not only one of the greatest plays of the German Enlightenment, but one of the greatest plays in European drama. This play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) about the importance of religious tolerance and of treating all people as members of one human family, has embodied the fundamental tenets of humanism from 1779 when it first premiered to the present day when its plea for reason in treating relations between human beings of different beliefs feels more urgent now than ever. It is a great pity, therefore, that director Birgit Schreyer Duarte has cast the title role in a manner that constantly distracts from the importance of the surprisingly relevant issues the play presents.

The Soulpepper Theatre Company of Toronto gave Lessing’s play its unconscionably belated Canadian professional premiere in 2004. At that time I summarized the circumstances of the play and importance thus: “The action takes place in 12th-century Jerusalem, recently reconquered from the Crusaders by a sultan of the Egyptian Ayyubid dynasty, Salah-ad-Din (1138-93), known as Saladin in the West, whose most famous battle was against Richard the Lionheart of England. Despite these circumstances, Saladin was renowned in both East and West for his generosity and religious tolerance, allowing the conquered Jews and Christians of Jerusalem to practice their religions. 

This history is only the backdrop for the story of Nathan, a wealthy Jewish merchant, known for his kindness and wisdom. Nathan returns to Jerusalem to hear a strange story. A Christian Knight Templar, just pardoned by Saladin because of his likeness to Saladin’s brother, has rushed into Nathan’s house as it was burning to rescue his only daughter Rachel. The young Rachel is obsessed with her ‘angel’ but Conrad, the Templar, is deeply conflicted and refuses to see her again. His pardon from the member of one ‘enemy’ religion and his rescue of a member of another ‘enemy’ religion cause him anger and consternation. Efforts to bring him closer to Nathan or Saladin only call forth his bigotry.

In the play all of the characters carry a secret concerning either their own identity or that of someone else. Lessing has so constructed the plot that no one character holds all the pieces of a puzzle that will fully explain their true relationships to each other. Yet, as the action moves forward secret after secret comes to light forming a complete picture by the end. Thus the plot itself mirrors the play’s theme of the need for communal cooperation among members of different religions”.

Director Birgit Schreyer Duarte and costume designer Michelle Tracey have moved the action forward from the 12th century to the present, which does not make much sense of the setting given that Jerusalem and the Holy Land are under Muslim control. Nevertheless, Tracey has two cast members patrol the stage in military outfits holding machine guns and dresses Nathan and the Saladin in modern suits and ties. 

Teresa Przybylski's set, however, is so simple and abstract it conforms much better to the nature of the play as a parable. Przybylski has three large hangings partially cover the balcony running across the back wall of the stage. The three hangings look like large pieces of parchment of about the same size and can easily be seen as a visual metaphor for the three religions that dominate life in Jerusalem. Their earthen colour, like that of the rest of the set, helps suggest Jerusalem’s location in the midst of desert. 

In Germanophone areas of Europe, Nathan der Weise is standard repertory and the role of Nathan is one of the most prized among aged actors. For reasons not explained in her Director’s Notes, Duarte has cast Diane Flacks as the renowned, elderly patriarch Nathan. This is a terrible mistake for two reasons.

The first reason has to do with my firm belief, argued in several other reviews, that if a classic play is to be presented before an audience who is most likely unfamiliar with it, the director’s duty is to present the play with as little directorial tampering as possible so that the audience will respond to the play itself rather than the director’s impositions on it. If we could count on an audience having seen Nathan the Wise as many times as it likely has The Tempest, then certainly such a key role should be played by a woman, as it was last year at Stratford. The role is so well-known that it is about time it was opened up for master actors of either sex to to interpret it.

While the role of Nathan may be as familiar to people in Germanophone lands as the role of Prospero is here, Nathan is new to us and casting a woman in the role turns it into an alienation device since we are constantly made aware that the character of Nathan is being acted rather than being drawn into the story in which he is such a major figure.

The second reason is that Diane Flacks, despite her best attempts to lower her voice and carry her body in such a way as to seem like an aged man, never for one second is convincing as such. With her wrinkle-free skin, her short grey-sprayed haircut and a fake beard that makes it look as if it is Nathan’s first-ever attempt to grow one, Flacks looks and sounds like a teenaged actor giving her best shot at playing and old man, something one might expect at a high school production, but not at the largest classical theatre festival in North America. People have long complained of the use of blackface and more recently of yellowface. Duarte’s casting of Flacks could easily be called “elderface”. When so many actors of the appropriate age to play a patriarch are either un- or underemployed, not to hire one of them is an insult to them and to the audience and a burden to the actor. Flacks is clearly expending too much energy trying to be a type of character she is not. 

In her Director’s Notes the only clue that Duarte gives to this casting decision is to ask, “What do we consider ‘wise’ in women versus in men?” Nathan happens not to be the only wise character in the play and Lessing does not portray men as the only people who can be wise. Therefore, Duarte’s casting decision rather than helping us understand how advanced Lessing’s thinking was in 1779, confuses and thwarts that process.

Given that she never once convinces us that she is an aged Jewish patriarch, Flacks does present Nathan as a thoughtful person, more ready to see the humour in things than to look for malice. If you can get over the fact that Flacks looks and sounds like a precocious teenager, you will see that she does give Nathan’s lines a sensitive reading. Her account of the key speech in the play, referred to as the “Parable of the Three Rings”, arises naturally and builds to a series of revelations just as does the play itself. 

The finest performance in the play is that of Jakob Ehman as Conrad, the Knight Templar. Conrad is the play’s most conflicted character and Ehman demonstrates clearly that it is Conrad’s inner turmoil rather than his natural disposition that has made him seem so anti-social. Conrad, alone among his comrades who have attempted to overthrow Saladin, has been pardoned by the sultan and is suffering what we would now call survivor guilt. At the same time he has, out of pure instinct, rescued a Jewish girl, Nathan’s daughter, from a fire and has to contend with the feeling that he is in love with a non-Christian. Ehman makes Conrad’s gradually reintegration into society so believable that we feel sympathy for a figure who at first appeared brusque and unfriendly.

Danny Ghantous and Miranda Calderon play Saladin and his sister Sittah as the de facto co-rulers of Jerusalem. Lessing has us first meet the two as they play chess, a general symbol of a balance between the sexes as it is at the end of The Tempest when Ferdinand and Miranda are revealed playing the game. Sittah wins and Lessing continually portrays her calm reason in contrast to Saladin’s excitability as the true power that keeps the Jerusalem of this period the peaceful place it is.

Ghantous goes so far in depicting Saladin as shallow and unreflective that it is difficult to understand why the other characters look concerned whenever they are called before him. Ghantous’s Saladin unfortunately inspires neither the admiration nor awe he should. Calderon’s Sittah, however, fully lives up to Lessing’s characterization of her as restrained and insightful. Lessing makes clear, and Calderon’s performance bears it out, that Sittah is as wise as Nathan, but unlike him, must exercise her influence behind the scenes.

Among the other characters Sarah Orenstein plays the Christian Daya not as a slightly scatterbrained nurse but as a mature woman whose secret knowledge combined with the events of the fire have left her understandably flustered. Her decision to reveal her long-held secret comes across as an act of courage. 

As Nathan’s daughter Rachel, Oksana Sirju convinces us that a young girl could romanticize her rescue from the fire as divine intervention and view her saviour as a guardian angel. Yet, Sirju does well in demonstrating how after meeting Conrad she is filled with a mixture of having her imaginary world dashed while feeling a realer, and more confusing emotion for her rescuer. 

Lessing uses the dervish Al-Hafi, who becomes the Sultan’s treasurer, and Bonafides, a Christian lay brother, as the two main sources of comedy in the first part of the play. Neither Shelly Antony as Al-Hafi nor Ron Kennell as Bonafides overplay their roles. This is important because by the end of the play Lessing assigns both very serious duties. Antony makes Al-Hafi’s renunciation of the world not merely believable but makes it resonate as a rebuke to all those who focus solely on material things rather than spiritual matters. Kennell gracefully moves out of his comic manner when Bonafides reveals why he is presently a lay brother and realizes that he has important information that will help solve the puzzle of relationships that has perplexed all the characters.

As if to deliberately provoke, the only character Lessing portrays in a solely negative light is the Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem. Harry Nelken portrays him as proud, bigoted and totally unmoved by pleas of mercy expressed by Bonafides.

Whenever anyone enters the presence of Saladin, Duarte has two soldiers check the visitor’s identification and pat them down before admitting them to the Sultan’s presence. This is unrealistic since such a security check would certainly have happened at the entrance to the palace not at the entrance to the Sultan’s private chambers. It is also contrary to the mood of the play. While we in the present may be used to constant security threats, the model world of the play as Lessing portrays it is based on trust. An insurrection of the Templars has been put down, but otherwise the Jerusalem of the play is characterized by peace and tolerance not fear and menace. Duarte’s use of the constant presence of armed soldiers suggests, wrongly, that Saladin rules by force not by justice. 

Given that Nathan the Wise is presented so rarely in Canada, it behooves anyone interested in classic drama to make a point of seeing the play while they can. If you can see past the miscasting and directorial oddities in the current Stratford production, you will see a play written ten years after the ratification of the U. S. Constitution that demonstrates the values of tolerance and the belief in human dignity with a force unlike any other play of the period. The clarity with which Lessing expresses humanistic ideals feels like a healing balm in these times of invective and distrust. If only Stratford had presented a more straightforward production, the power of Nathan the Wise would have been even greater. Yet, as it is, it is powerful enough. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Diane Flacks as Nathan with the ensemble; Danny Ghantous as Saladin and Miranda Calderon as Sittah; Diane Flacks as Nathan and Shelly Antony as Al-Hafi; Jakob Ehman as Conrad; Sarah Orenstein as Daya and Oksana Sirju as Rachel. © 2019 David Hou.

For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.