The Theatreguide.London Review
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
Almeida Theatre Spring 2008
This new play by American Stephen Adly Guirgis is exciting, engrossing, involving, frustrating and overlong.
With the possible exception of a really great Broadway musical, the most exciting theatrical experience is a playwright at the peak of his power just letting rip and damn the torpedoes.
Even if he goes too far or takes you places you weren't prepared for, you wouldn't trade the ride for the safer experience of a more moderate writer.
Guirgis's conceit is to imagine biblical figures as contemporary New Yorkers. Judas is a brain-sozzled street person, Simon the Zealot a hoodie, Pilate a patrician civil servant with nothing but contempt for the humans who clutter up his neat bureaucratic record.
Caiaphas is an ageing rabbi carrying the weight of 2000 years of blame. Saint Monica is a foul-mouthed Harlem biddy, and the other disciples we meet are just guys from the neighbourhood or the local bar.
It shouldn't work. It should come across as too forced or self-consciously clever. But it works brilliantly.
The updating brings the characters alive and makes their psychology and relationships believable and sympathetic. And it enables the playwright to address both the biblical story and its theological implications in language that is fresh and evocative.
Somewhere in the general vicinity of Purgatory a modern woman lawyer (clearly the sort who got her degree at night school while temping during the day) has managed to re-open the case of Judas's damnation, forcing a trial before a reluctant judge, with an oily ambulance-chasing Egyptian lawyer (who you suspect may have got his degree online) serving as prosecution.
As she interrogates witnesses, who include not just those who were there but also Freud, Mother Theresa and Satan ('Hi, Lu,' says the judge, an old crony), it becomes clear that she has a larger agenda than freeing one damned soul.
And so the play inevitably wanders into rather heady discussions of matters theological and metaphysical, centring on the question of how a loving and merciful God could damn even the worst of sinners. And not the least of Guirgis's accomplishments is that these are all crystal-clear and emotionally involving.
In part this is because we care about the characters who care about these issues, in part because Guirgis has a love of language and rises on occasion to the mouth-filling, ear-intoxicating levels of Tennessee Williams or August Wilson.
Unquestionably one of the pleasures of this play is the contact high you get from such lush theatrical poetry.
This co-production of the Almeida and director Rupert Goold's Headlong Theatre could hardly be bettered, nor could the performances. Susan Lynch carries much of the burden as the defending lawyer, raising us to her character's level of passionately caring about all this, while Mark Lockyer provides comic relief as the prosecutor.
Douglas Henshall makes Satan a laid-back playboy who nonetheless can destroy anyone who annoys him with a zinger aimed directly at their weakest spot, and there are telling appearances by Ron Cephas Jones as Pilate, Gawn Granger as Caiaphas and Jessica Williams as Monica.
The play is structured so that the two central figures in the story, Judas and Jesus, are silent presences through much of its length, until a climactic scene that Joseph Mawle and Edward Hogg make heart-breakingly real and moving.
At three hours, the play could have benefited from heavy cutting, its length sometimes dissipating the energy and effect of scenes that would have worked better if more focussed.
In particular, the play ends, not with the powerful Judas-Jesus scene, but with a monologue by a very minor character, and one can appreciate its dramatic and thematic purpose while also seeing that it goes on far too long, sucking all the power out of the play's conclusion.
But as I said, with a playwright of such rich invention and a production of such power, you accept the excess with the bounty.
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