A Nativity succeeds or fails on its casting at pre-school level. Staging will typically be sparse – a sheet of painted cardboard standing in for a door and symbolising the whole inn, for example. Music is often traditional. And costumes dependent on the goodwill of the parents of those involved – and if a three year old does not wish to wear a towel on his or her head preferring instead a headband with balls bobbing on the end of the long springs, there is no way that a three year old can be persuaded that the springs potentially break the spell of the story. The production cannot rely merely on children that will not fall asleep, cry, or lift up their tops while picking at their belly buttons – although often these attributes define who gets the main roles. Instead the production requires children who can project, who can imbue their one line with emotion and character.
This morning I witnessed such a performance. Typically, the role of second inn-keeper is a bit of confirmatory filler between the important first inn-keeper (who establishes the busyness of the inns in Bethlehem) and the third inn-keeper, whose response to the plight of Joseph and his heavily pregnant wife can make or break a production. The third inn-keeper can take his line benevolently or can play it in a resigned way, feeling pressured into nudging these Nazarenes in their stable relationship into his barn. But today was the day of the second inn-keeper. He was determined to stand-out – even as he sat there in the early stages arms folded, a grimace on his face. And then came the pivotal scene.
While Joseph cockily held the bottom of his dressing gown front of stage, swinging it from side to side and forgetting to knock at the inn doors in time with the sound effects (a nursery teacher stamping her booted foot on the floor) the second innkeeper leapt up from his chair, his face contorted with rage, and snarled.
Joseph let go of his dressing gown. There followed a pause. Majestic. Magisterial. Dripping with contempt and bile.
Another pause. Longer. Joseph noticably twitching now beside him, bowing his head as he responded to the power of the performance. Some of the nursery teachers started to look uncomfortable. Gently the second innkeeper began to shake his head, almost imperceptibly at first. But slightly more pronounced as the pause hung there. The gestures were small, the audience silenced.
He raised his hands dismissively.
“THERE IS NO ROOM”
And he turned his back stamping his feet. A child cried. Another screamed.
Joseph left. He was not going to stay at that inn.