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Legendary date with the Lord

09 September 2016

Peter Graystone sees a play based on an apocryphal writing

“TIBERIUS CAESAR was suffering from a grievous sickness. And hearing that there was in Jerusalem a certain physician, Jesus by name, who healed all diseases by his word alone, [ordered], ‘Go as quickly as thou canst across the sea and tell Pilate, my servant and friend, to send me this physician to restore
me to my original health.’”

This extract is from The Death of Pilate, part of the New Testament Apocrypha, and is the inspiration for John Wolfson’s play The Inn at Lydda. According to the ancient text, Tiberius received a message that Pilate had executed Jesus, and, enraged that his only hope of evad­ing death had been snatched from him, he had Pilate killed.

Wolfson takes this legend and adds another layer of implausibility. He has Tiberius set out for Judæa, where he meets the magi, making a return visit to the child they wor­shipped 30 years before. Towards the end of the play he does encounter Jesus, who has indeed been crucified, but has risen from the dead. They converge on an inn, as do Caligula and John the author of Revelation. Putting those char­acters together should have made the meeting explosive. Sadly not!

We learn that the miracle of healing lies in the natural world, and the skill God has given human hands to make use of it. We learn that no amount of power can over­come death, and that the worship of Jesus is compromised when his followers attain power of their own.

The director, Andy Jordan, does everything he can to make the play entertaining. There’s gorgeous music. There’s a farcical chase of a catamite. There’s dance. There’s anachronistic humour. The audi­ence is fed hummus and olives. There are puppet animals and violent deaths. There’s an eclipse that is superbly handled in the candle-lit beauty of the Sam Wana­maker Playhouse. And luxury cast­ing lends credibility even to unlikely dialogue. But what a muddle! It is wildly uneven in tone.

Samuel Collings gives Jesus a quiet dignity and Stephen Boxer is frightening and frightened as Tiberius, roaring against approach­ing death. But in the closing minutes prophetic words about the place of Christianity in the centuries to come are undermined by putting them in the mouth of Caligula (Philip Cumbus), who has been a character of comical excess for the duration of the play.

Jesus actually did look on the face of Tiberius. It was on the coin that the Pharisees showed him when they asked a trick question about paying taxes. His reply was quick-witted, ambiguous, and timelessly helpful for Christians in their engagement with society. The best thing that this play has done for me is to drive me back to read Jesus’s words again.


The Inn at Lydda runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, in the Globe Theatre London, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1, until 17 September. Tickets from
http://www.shakespearesglobe.com or 020 7401 9919.

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