It is revealing in some ways that Hampstead Theatre, bastion of new writing, has decided to revive a two-hundred year old play from Germany to deal with the very contemporary issues of religious strife, prejudice and anti-humanism.
Ultimately, though, the key question has to be: does it make good theatre? Sadly, the answer is no.
Having said that, this production of the 1799 play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is accomplished, the set is outstandingly evocative and the use of music and effects transport the audience very effectively to the age of the Crusades.
This revival is doubtlessly meant as a “think-piece”, as relevant (in different ways) now as it would have been when it was written. Born of the Enlightenment, it wrestles thoughtfully with the era’s attempts to resolve the contradiction between reason and faith. Moreover, it does this by explicitly relativising the three key religions – something which would possibly have been more controversial then than it is now.
As a play, though, it is rather sluggish, worthy and dull. Unfortunately, it takes a bit more than some attractive scenery to prevent the sore-behind feeling that possessed me after about an hour. While there is an interesting intellectual enterprise to be had in searching the dialogue for the ring of contemporary truths, this is quite a sacrifice to make for the sake of entertainment.
The production does contain some good gags. And Michael Pennington, who is outstanding in the lead role, has some of the best ones, delivering them expertly, particularly when he is invited to earn “interest on the interest on the interest” of a loan before deciding he’s “not interested.”
The play is strongest when it uses humour in this way to puncture our prejudices. The Nazis, who banned it, clearly did not like its message that we are already brothers in spirit if not in blood. “Must Jews and Christians be only Jews and Christians first and humans afterwards?” ponders Nathan. It is a question that we could equally ask of the media discussions around Islam today.
Ultimately, the play does have relevance at a time when the intellectual gains of the Enlightenment – the quest to solve problems through the systematic application of science and reason – are being dismissed as the road to the concentration camp. Indeed, even Edward Kemp, the play’s translator, in his programme foreword suggests that “when we believe we have the truth we tend to do terrible things to other humans.”
Yet I think when Lessing claimed he would rather have “the quest for the truth than the (God-given) truth” he recognised that while truth is always contingent and changing, it is, nonetheless, a worthy goal in itself.
The truth about the play, however, is that while it may be relevant, it is somewhat debatable as to whether it is, at heart, actually any good. And it is a shame that we seem to have to go so far back in time to find such a stoutly written defence of reason over mysticism.