Writer: John Wolfson
Director: Andy Jordan
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
It looks like history, if feels like history, but this is a story that is apparently not something that could ever have been written down so we’ll have to remember to suspend belief.
This imagined meeting of real characters began life at the Globe. Moving a few steps away to the Sam Wanamaker playhouse in this latest production with its overall sandy tones and flickering light of nearly exactly 100 candles gives the Judea set scenes a hefty biblical overtone. With excellent costume and minimal set (doors, chairs, tables) the cast has a perfect opportunity to tell the stripped back story of the world’s most famous ascetic, and a gaudy emperor. It’s an opportunity they seem to relish, creating an outstanding evening.
It’s set a few days after the crucifixion of Jesus, when Rome’s Emperor Tiberius Caesar travels to Judea to seek the former’s healing powers. With an air of terror around the murder-happy emperor, no-one dares tell him Pilate has already killed the one man who can heal him. As all good Sunday-school graduates know, that crucifixion was not the end of Jesus, and so through the machinations of the three Kings who welcomed him to the world, and a frantic John the Apostle, he meets with Tiberius, and we reach the moral and philosophical crux of the play: should there be a limit to forgiveness and mercy?
It’s a moral discourse wrapped up in a finely tuned script with top quality direction. We’re presented with ancient characters who are immediately recognisable, largely through the tricks of Wolfson’s language which veers delightfully into the vernacular, but also through the inventive characterisations. Samuel Collings is a very cool Jesus – just imagine him hand-pumping an espresso while describing his spiritual awakening at a Bali yoga retreat. He’s utterly charming, essentially, but turns impressive, authoritative (Godlike?) and righteous when confronting Tiberius’ continued sinning during their duet at the play’s pinnacle. Tiberius himself (Stephen Boxer) is a rambling, mad, extremely violent ruler who provides the biggest audience challenge in the piece. Can we really agree with him as he describes how necessary murder is to hold power in the greatest empire the world has ever known? Wolfson, you have us ensnared.
Fine performances throughout, it has to be said. Philip Cumbus as Caligula, in particular, makes us question where the line between madness and lucidity really is, David Cardy as Tiberius’ astrologer could be taken straight out of one of Galton and Simpson’s stories of spivvy chancers with a heart of gold, and the three Kings provide some beautifully gentle comedy to offset the seriousness that comes with the rest.
Andy Jordan’s quick direction make this one of the swiftest two hours (with interval) you’re likely to find in London playhouses at the moment. Bowling along, never flagging nor coming unstuck, it’s a neat trick and takes real talent from all concerned and top quality material to execute. A shame it’s only on for two weeks.
Runs until 17 September 2016 | Image:Tristram Kenton