The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot

Posted on: 17 April 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green reviews a play that sees the most famous traitor put on trial in New York.

The fate of one of the most reviled men in history is examined by American playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis in his hilarious and extraordinary courtroom drama The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot, at the Almeida Theatre, in which the infamous betrayal is dissected by the forces of good and evil.

In a court in Purgatory, apparently a suburb of New York, that owes as much to the ghetto as the Gospels, figures such as as Pontius Pilate, Mother Theresa and Sigmund Freud are called to testify in a trial of God and the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth versus Judas Iscariot.

Employing the violent chaotic energy of New York City, the play explores the timeless questions of free will and responsibility and of faith and fate.

Although giving this age-old tale a sharp contemporary twist, Guirgis provides a sophisticated theological treatment of the issue, in all the slangy - and sometimes foul-mouthed - urban argot for which he is known amongst theatre aficionados.

In this case, the streetwise lingo represented the playwright's attempts at what theologans call an 'inculturation' of the bible, that is a translation of the Gospel texts not simply into a different language but for a specific culture. For Guirgis - who wrote Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train - that culture is not that of first century Palestine but 21st century urban life. Hence his saints and apostles speak, and often shout, as if they were standing on a crowded underground platform in the rush hour.

At three hours this production, smartly directed by Rupert Goold, seems rather overlong and the ending somewhat of an anti-climax. But, in a work which at times veers from the bisarre to the brilliant, there is no denying its wit, power and inventiveness, in particular showing how an event which occurred over 2,000 years ago can appear so fresh and relevant today. This indeed is a play which combines philosophy with social comedy, as well as exploring the roots and nature of anti-semitism.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot - Douglas Henshall (Satan) and Susan Lynch (Fabiana) Photo: Hugo GlendinningThe devil, they say, has all the best tunes and the standout performance here comes from Douglas Henshall as a sleek, acid-tongued Satan, a white-suited figure that appears like a cross between a nightclub proprietor and a fashion guru.

Other impressive performances come from Amanda Boxer as Judas's distraught mother, Henrietta, Dona Croll as a most convincing and sympathetic Mother Theresa, Susan Lynch as Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, the Counsel for the Defence, Mark Lockyer as Tusef El-Fayoumy, the Egyptian Counsel for the Prosecution, Ron Cephas Jones as a black, dandyish, golfing Pontius Pilate, Edward Hogg as a suitably white robed, bearded Jesus of Nazareth, and, of course, Joseph Mawle as Judas, forever haunted by his terrible act of betrayal.

This certainly is a play you won't forget in a hurry!

Laurence Green

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