NATHAN THE WISE by Gotthold Lessing, directed by Tim Albery, with William Webster, Cara Pifko, Andrew Moodie, Karen Robinson, Dusan Dukic, Barbara Gordon, Derek Boyes, David Calderisi and Vik Sahay. Presented by Soulpepper at Harbourfront Centre Theatre (231 Queens Quay West). Previews begin tonight (Thursday, June 17), opens Tuesday (June 22) and runs in rep to July 31. $30-$49, stu $25, some rush. 416-973-4000.
It's not often that you find a classic drama that acts - in several senses of the word - like a newly written piece. But that's exactly what Soulpepper Theatre does with its upcoming production of Nathan The Wise, a 1779 German play by one of the masters of 18th-century drama, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.
You can be forgiven for not having heard of a man who, outside his native land, is better known to scholars than to theatregoers. But Nathan The Wise, despite being over two centuries old and set in the 12th century, has a surprisingly modern message for viewers.
The play is set in a Jerusalem where Christians, Jews and Muslims have trouble dealing with their differences, and strife and distrust are part of everyday life. Lessing offers a humanistic way of attacking these problems.
"When I tell people I'm performing in a Lessing play," chuckles William Webster, a Soulpepper founding member who plays the central role, "I have to add that I don't mean Doris.
"We're discovering a new piece as we work on it. There's no performance tradition here, which happens so often with the classics. With all due respect to Romeo And Juliet, it's hard to do the Shakespeare work in as fresh a way as something like Nathan."
Soulpepper took this route before in its premiere presentation seven years ago, a spectacularly eye-opening production of Schiller's rarely performed Don Carlos.
"We had to stumble and fall and agonize before we discovered what the Schiller might be about for us today," recalls Webster.
Nathan The Wise is a bit more straightforward in its relevance. Nathan's a Jewish businessman whose daughter Rachel falls in love with a Knight Templar, a Christian warrior monk. If that's not trouble enough, Saladin, the Muslim ruler of Jerusalem, has need of the funds that Nathan has on hand, and may use devious methods to get them.
Can these characters - and these cultural groups - get along?
"It's obviously topical," offers Webster, whose stage work includes 14 years at Stratford as well as contemporary works by Steve Martin and Judith Thompson. "But the play's not just about Jews, Muslims and Christians.
"It's also about what's happening in Iraq and elsewhere around the world, and the problem of making someone else the 'other,' about dehumanizing people by measuring them using one's own beliefs.
"Lessing was someone who distrusted those who claim to know the one way, the only truth. He would have hated George Bush."
The playwright, continues Webster, proposes that we be careful about how we distance ourselves from others, for we may find that we ourselves are the other.
"But what's rare is how he goes about it. There's irony and wit in his coming to terms with the monstrosity of what we do to each other, how to get through the day without moaning and groaning about hatred and atrocity.
"The play, ultimately, is about the miracle of loving each other."
As challenging as the play is for Webster, he's just as passionate about another aspect of Soulpepper to which he's committed: the company's training and outreach programs for young people. Recipient of the group's inaugural award for mentorship, he's taught in schools, worked one-on-one with high school students and nurtured an interest in theatre among people who haven't had much exposure to it.
"Our work isn't about training young actors but, rather, about encouraging these young voices," he says warmly. "It's one of the ways that we're trying to tear down barriers, in the audience as well as onstage."
Later this year, the company presents a production of Hamlet, including a series of school performances aimed at the kids the company's been working with for several years.
"Everyone we've been involved with - and that includes a lot of elementary school children - will see it," enthuses Webster. "I've learned more from these young people than I ever expected to."