Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London (***)
Well here’s a rum to-do. An imaginary meeting between the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar and Jesus of Nazareth is American academic and playwright, John Wolfson’s opportunity for a ripe crusade on power and its corruptions.
Except it’s less what you might call `a crusade’ than a farce in the style of the `Carry On’ series. I fully expected Frankie Howerd to appear any moment though David Cardy does a fine, less camp imitation as Tiberius’ unfortunate astrologer-herbal healer Thrysullus unceremoniously put to the sword for trying to make off with Jessie Lilley’s Helen.
The `Helen’? Couldn’t tell you. It’s a bit part anyway, first seen as enslaved and tied up to suit the whims of the next in line, Caligula – yes the Caligula – before Thrysullus tempts her away.
Daft really – and if that all seems a trifle flippant, so is Wolfson’s tone. Yes, there are serious points forthcoming. A dying Tiberius hearing of Jesus’s healing gifts makes the journey to Judaea in hope of a cure. Except, unknown to him, Jesus has been crucified by his Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Cue realisation by Tiberius he is talking to a dead man – well, a reincarnated one.
Salty exchanges ensue between Our Lord – a cool pragmatic Samuel Collings – and Stephen Boxer’s borderline if not fully signed up psychopathic defender of the Republic/dictator Tiberius in which Jesus finally refuses to help because `you killed the man who would cure you’ – Tiberius’s old sage, Thrysullus.
History plays a pretty big part too with ruminations as to what gets written in and what gets left out voiced by the ageing Three Wise Men, Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior played with wry world-weariness by Richard Bremmer, Joseph Marcell and Kevin Moore respectively.
There are some nicely ironic comments, too, towards the end by Caligula, of all people, on how history will judge Tiberius in comparison with the weaponry and the numbers of people who will be killed in 1000 years: `the carnage of Rome will count as nothing. You’ll be forgotten.’ Quel horreur! Like all leaders, Tiberius is obsessed with legacy.
Andy Jordan directs with gusto and Wolfson’s earthy scepticism will either make you laugh-out-loud or irritate the hell out of you. A plague on all your houses, perhaps? Take your pick.
The Inn at Lydda runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to Sept 17, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Sept 2016 and slightly altered here.