Classical German play tackles religious intolerance

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For years, a common colloquialism has advised steering polite dinnertime conversation away from topics such as politics and religion that tend to result in heated discussion, disagreements or fist fights. The University of Calgary's drama department has chosen to ignore this advice, aiming to explore notions of religion, tolerance and intolerance with a symposium taking place Feb. 21-23 on campus. As part of the symposium, the U of C drama department presents Nathan the Wise, directed by associate professor Barry Yzereef.

"It's a play I've always been interested in performing," says Yzereef. "I've let it be known throughout the drama department and also in Germanic Studies that I've always been interested in this play. Germanic Studies decided to put on a conference dealing with the themes of tolerance and intolerance and they said, 'would you be willing to put the play on?' and that's how it all got started."

Originally written in 1779 by German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan the Wise tackles religious disagreements during the Crusades. The play was seen as controversial and performances were banned during many periods, including much of Lessing's lifetime. Yzereef feels the play's message hasn't lessened in importance over time.

"Lessing's message is so important because it's a play about acceptance, embracing and understanding of the other," says Yzereef. "The play deals with themes of anti-semitism. It deals with themes of war. It deals with themes of family and discovering of who you truly are. These themes never, ever die."

Yzereef notes that the timeliness of both the performance of the play and the symposium itself ensures that the issues being examined are relevant, both in a historical and modern context. On a personal level, he shares that performing Nathan the Wise has brought out a great deal of excitement amongst the cast and crew, as well as caused them to examine their own feelings on the subject matter.

"It's fascinating that this, although a German classical play that most people might think would be terribly boring, has been for the company and everyone involved absolutely exciting," says Yzereef. "I've never had a group of actors after rehearsal go out together to discuss really what the substance of the play is. They quote the play to each other constantly. They're examining the issues and they're asking themselves about the themes. It's all been really fascinating for them. I know the audiences will find this an incredible, modern play even though it was written in 1779."

Finally, those interested in discussing controversial topics no longer have to hold their tongues. Instead, they can head over to the theatre to explore complex issues in an engaging manner. Thanks to the departments of drama and Germanic studies, it is now safe to discuss politics and religion without being chased away from the dinner table.

Nathan the Wise runs Feb. 19 to Mar. 1 at University Theatre.