NATHAN THE WISE by G. E. Lessing (Soulpepper). See listings, this page. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Soulpepper might have chosen G.E. Lessing 's 1779 Nathan The Wise to comment on 2004's bitter struggles in Israel, but what emerges from director Tim Albery 's splendid production is a vibrant, timeless tale about family, fellowship and heart.
In 12th-century Jerusalem, the successful Jewish merchant Nathan ( William Webster ) almost loses his daughter Rachel ( Cara Pifko ) to a house fire - an anti-Semitic act? - but for the heroism of the hotheaded Christian Knight Templar Conrad ( Dusan Dukic ). Can Nathan sanction their budding romance? Can he outwit Jerusalem's Muslim ruler, Saladin ( Andrew Moodie ), and Saladin's cunning sister Sittah ( Karen Robinson ), who finagle for his money?
Lessing brings characters and cultures together to look at their underlying similarities rather than their surface differences. In scenes that have a touch of Talmudic argument, he offers various viewpoints and suggests ways of reconciling seeming opposites. The idea of game-playing is central, so it's no surprise that in episodes that smack of Dickensian coincidence, Lessing keeps us guessing whether what we're watching will end as tragedy or comedy.
The Soulpepper cast is a uniformly fine one, led by Webster's ironic, warm Nathan and Moodie's toying, unpredictable sultan. They work on a clever set designed by Dany Lyne , atmospherically lit by Sharon DiGenova , that includes red sand extending to the audience's feet - thereby including us in a story where costumes suggest the late 1940s - and a long piece of timber that at times separates a scene's protagonists. At a distance from the action, books line the theatre's wall, suggesting that knowledge written down isn't as important as what we instinctively know in our hearts.
And that's the key to Nathan's wisdom. It's not about what's in his head, but rather that he acknowledges the shared humanity between himself and others of all cultural and religious stripes.
It's hugely exciting to discover a forgotten dramatic treasure like this one.