Nathan the Wise, the 1779 play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing ((1729-1781) is being presented at the Stratford Festival this summer of 2019, and it’s a knockout—today—as or even more apt, resonant and riveting today as it has been in its chequered past. No, its past hasn’t been chequered, its reception has been. The play has “long been celebrated as a canticle of tolerance and humanism” (quoting from the program). It’s déja vu over and over again—discrimination, self-righteousness and hard-wired prejudice—presented in an excellent production with an astonishing Nathan at its centre. Canadian actress Diane Flacks plays the “rich Jew, Nathan” in the best swtiched casting my friend and I had ever seen at Stratford. Every move she made, every nuance and shrug, her voice, her appearance — all flawless and totally believable—along with a moving interpretation. Not knowing what to expect, we were knocked out. I said that.
Good we saw it. It helped soften the blow dealt by the worst production of The Merry Wives of WindsorI I have ever seen in which attempts were made to upstage Shakespeare with scatological humour. A predictable turd joke was repeated three more times, just as unfunny as the first time. Face or foot in shit, it was not funny. I can’t say more. We left at intermission.
Well, you can’t win ‘em all. I was relieved to attend Mother’s Daughter, the third play of the Queenmaker trilogy by Canadian actor/playwright Kate Hennig. The subject of this one is Mary Tudor (“Bloody Mary”) played by the wonderful actor, Shannon Taylor, who carries on from The Virgin Trial as young Bess’s older sister to the thankless, complex role of an unpopular queen. The historical facts are there but Hennig won’t call the leading figure bloodyy. Historical events are treated realistically and add suspense to thre ‘story”. No one, of course, can write like Shakespeare and Hennig wisely doesn’t try. I must admit, though, that I was dismayed at the 21st century language she occasionally resorts to: Bullshit and the F-word stayed with me after the show was over, actually obscuring the power of the play. I’m not old-fashioned; i just have taste and perception.
Stratford’s choice of new plays is heavily biased toward the Shakespeare tradition, history, myth, legend, whatever.