Festival Theatre, Chichester
Minerva Studio, Chichester
Opened 1 May, 2003

The new, attractively weighty programme for the 2003 Chichester Festival Theatre season opens with the three-year plan of the triumvirate now at the artistic helm, producer Ruth Mackenzie and directors Martin Duncan and Steven Pimlott. Their pitch stresses the "Festival" element, with a different celebratory theme each year. For 2003 it's Venice, and a pool has been installed beneath the entire main stage, parts of which are uncovered to serve as the canals of that city and as a swimming pool on the island of Barataria in the opening production, Gilbert & Sullivan's The Gondoliers.

This is recognisably a show in Duncan's occasional directorial idiom of "wacky". Lots of colourful light washes (ah, that Venetian light), costumes both bright and slightly surreal 1950s frocks on the female chorus mix with episcopal finery and gold braid worn on top of the men's Gondolieri outfits and a performance style owing more to modern-day playfulness than any particular period. An updated coda to "Small Titles And Orders" namechecks the likes of Chris Tarrant and New Labour.

It's all great fun, this romp in which a cradle mix-up leads twenty years later to a pair of republican-minded gondolieri being installed as absurdly menial joint kings of a paradise island. Great fun, but not necessarily much more. It's also noticeable that, for an artistic régime which claims to set such store by the particularities of the Festival Theatre space, the miking and amplification of singers often removes an aural sense of their actual positioning on the stage.

Far more interesting is the season opener in the Minerva Studio, Nathan The Wise by Gotthold Lessing. The set suggests a production of contemporary modishness, but Steven Pimlott's production gets to the wonderful heart of this German Enlightenment jewel. A late-Shakespearean romance kind of plot (likewise involving a relocated infant in its back-story and the ramifications thereof in adulthood) blends with passionate argument, both intellectual and emotional, that what matters is not the label of one's faith but the quality of one's humanity. In the mediaeval Sultanate of Jerusalem, we are shown Jews, Christians, Muslims and even a Sufi transcending religious intolerance by dint of simply yet determinedly being good people. Michael Feast as Nathan and Jeffery Kissoon as an exotically resonant Saladin lead an excellent cast; Edward Kemp's terrific translation balances German gravitas with a comic deftness which, rather than puncturing the profundity, lends it a defiant, even cheeky air of affirmation. As road maps to peace go, we could do a great deal worse.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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