Nikolaus Habjan shines a light on religious fundamentalism in Nathan der Weise.

With refugees reaching Europe in record numbers, it often seems that the humanistic approach is under fire. Yet strife in the Middle East and pleas for tolerance are as old as the hills, as the Volkstheater’s adaption of the classic Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise) shows. Written by champion of the Enlightenment and man of letters Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in 1779, the play encapsulates his ideals on the equality of man, religious equality and the perils of zealotry. An old chestnut familiar to generations of Austrian high schoolers, it could have easily descended into clichés, but under the deft direction of wunderkind and master puppeteer Nikolaus Habjan, the play shines.

After returning home to Jerusalem during the Third Crusade from a business trip, the Jewish merchant Nathan finds his house burnt down to the ground. But this is not his only problem: His adoptive daughter Recha was saved from the flames by a young templar, who now expects her hand in marriage and refuses to accept a no from a nonbeliever. Saladin, Sultan of Jerusalem needs money and pressures Nathan by asking him a loaded question: which one of the three Abrahamic religions is the true one? And finally, the Christian patriarch is just waiting for an opportunity to rid the city of the sultan.

Even more than two centuries later, the play’s themes still hold relevance. Habjan focuses less on the budding harmony between religions but rather on Nathan himself. He interprets the protagonist as a lonely man, who adapts to the role of being the “rich” and “wise” Jew in order to survive. Actor Günter Franzmeier captures those two sides of Nathan very well, vulnerable one moment and pragmatic the next. The ring parable, Nathan’s exchange with Gábor Biedermann’s sultan on which faith is the true one, has him go from threatened, desperate and finally vindicated all within one scene, evocatively showcasing Nathan’s survival instincts – and Franzmeier’s abilities.

To emphasize Nathan’s inner conflict, Habjan falls back on his trademark puppets. The play removes the role of the sultan’s treasurer Al-Hafi, replacing him with a facsimile of Nathan. Thus, the protagonist can converse with himself, allowing the audience to visualize Nathan’s thoughts and sense his loneliness.

The song remains the same

But Habjan’s puppetry isn’t the only deft use of duality – the set design by Denise Heschl and Jakob Brossmann also functions on several levels. The skeletal remains of a building draw an obvious parallel to the war-torn cities of Syria. Likewise, the crusade-ridden Jerusalem creates a meta level, bridging the past and present. The characters take the stage in their finest clothes, reminiscent of better days that lie behind.

Despite the serious tone, Habjan has some fun with the story. He orchestrates the meeting of Recha and the young templar for heartfelt comic relief, the two awkwardly sitting like teenagers facing each other while cheesy music plays from a boom box. Christoph Rothenbuchner manages to give his templar the requisite arrogance, coupled with confusion and doubts. The dialogue has been updated to take jabs at modern issues. Everything done by others to Christianity is violence, remarks the patriarch, “except whatever the church does to children.”

As with Habjan’s previous play at the Volkstheater, The Misunderstanding, the spoken German is supertitled in English and Arabic, once again effectively fitting even extensive lines into the limited space provided. English-language viewers will have no difficulty following the intense drama on stage while staying on par with the dialogue.

Jun 7, 10, 14 & 20, 19:30, Volkstheater