THEATRE / Race daemons: Lessing / Marlowe, Hamburg

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The young director Anselm Weber has possibly bitten off more than he can chew in this double bill combining the two classic plays Nathan der Weise and Der Jude von Malta at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. Both tread on the explosive territory of what it is to be a Jew, and Weber tries to defuse most potential mines with blanket irony - aka playing it all for laughs - but is so successful here that the evening turns into rather a damp squib.

In the 1770s, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing had been involved in a discussion in print on freedom of expression in religious matters which caused such an uproar that its continuance was vetoed. Lessing swiftly sidestepped censorship by dashing off Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise), which he termed a dramatic poem. Published in 1779, it predictably created an even greater furore.

Far removed from the world of his homespun comedy Minna von Barnhelm, or the Gothic melorama of Emilia Galotti, in Nathan we have Lessing the apostle of understanding. 'May the divine feeling of tolerance and forebearance expressed therein remain sacred and valued to our nation,' prayed Goethe.

The only thing Lessing's Nathan and Marlowe's Barabas have in common is their race. The only thing the plays have in common is the tragic triangle of Jew versus Christian versus Mohammedan.

Both Nathan and Barabas, according to Weber, bear an inhuman burden: the former of personifying the prototype of the noble, saintly Jew, the latter the prototype of the diabolic child-eater. What Weber has apparently tried to do - by weaving both plays together in alternate acts - is challenge the mythical concepts by driving them to the edge. Unfortunately, we have an oil and water situation here. Just as there is much of Lessing in Nathan, there is much of the daemon-driven Marlowe in Barabas. And Nathan has a past: his wife and seven children were burned to death by Christians. No decent human being can fail to admire him, which is why the play was banned in Nazi Germany, and promoted by the occupying Allies in 1945.

Barabas is gratuitously evil, but with as much substance as the demon king of pantomime. Josef Ostendorf, a fat figure in cream suit and sparkling rings, plays him as rather a raffish cove (both plays are set here in the 1930s), so that his Machiavellian opportunism seems merely regrettable. Weber seems to have baulked at portraying a Jew as truly evil, which is to betray Marlowe's play and unbalances his own concept - an imbalance that cannot be righted by injecting earsplitting heavy metal into any threatened dramatic hiatus.

This failure of nerve also blinds him to the broader canvas of Marlowe's play, although on the canvas he himself created of this hybrid, there are some witty touches, such as having Selim Calymath a recognisable relation of a Turkish shopkeeper in Berlin, and the courtesan Bellamira played gloriously by Monica Bleibtreu as a Hamburg whore, who even tries to drum up a little custom from the audience.

The production is a brave attempt that perhaps could never fully succeed. But credit to Weber for having tackled what is a sore subject: racial tolerance.