Plays which take religion seriously seem to be rare in Western theatre. There is plenty of drama which deals with crimes committed under cover of religiosity – child sexual abuse, bigotry, terrorism, political chicanery, the subjugation of women etc – but the stuff of faith itself has been relatively unexplored.
Last Days of Judas Iscariot is not afraid to deal with the big theological questions. New York playwright Stephen Adly Girgus is of mixed Egyptian and Irish heritage, and was educated by nuns (the good kind, according to the interview reproduced in the program for this production).
Much of his work (e.g. Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train, Motherf***er With The Hat, and the Pulitzer award-winning Between Riverside and Crazy utilises what might be termed “low-status” characters in the excavation of deep moral issues.
And who could be more low-status than Judas Iscariot, the beloved disciple of Jesus Christ, who betrayed him to the Romans for thirty pieces of silver, and hanged himself out of remorse?
Last Days of Judas Iscariot is one of three ambitious productions which comprise the year-ending Summer season at the RWCMD (currently the top-rated university for drama and dance in the UK, according to statistics compiled by The Guardian newspaper). The piece was first performed off-Broadway in 2005 (directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman), and there was a star-studded production at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2008. With over 20 speaking parts (although this production shares them out amongst 13 actors), it is obviously ideal showcase material.
The play begins, on Cory Shipp’s unfussy set (some elaboration kicks in later on), with Stevie Raine’s Judge introducing proceedings in his courtroom, and Judas’ mother, Henrietta – Georgina Sadler – begging for mercy for her misunderstood son.
It quickly transpires that we are in an area of Purgatory named Hope, and that the trial of Judas is not high on the court’s agenda, that issue apparently having been settled many hundreds of years ago. The persistence of a female lawyer, however – the obvious joke being that the legal profession is over-represented in the shadow world between Heaven and Hell – leads to a jury being appointed, and a variety of witnesses called as the case is heard.
This defence attorney, the troubled, driven Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, is played with great authority and intensity by Rebecca Harrod. Her opponent is the lascivious and parodically obsequious Yusef El-Fayoumy, David Shields giving a crowd-pleasing comic turn as the archetypal shyster.
There is winning comedy too from Lola Petticrew as sassy, potty-mouthed New Yorker Saint Monica (given authority by being the mother of Saint Augustine, one of the founders of the Church); Alex Borlo as a hard-of-hearing Mother Theresa, who gives as good as she gets when faced with difficult questions concerning some of her own pronouncements and connections; and Francis Mezza as Pontius Pilate, who is presented as a preening Southern States Nazi.
As the play progresses, there is more scope for subtlety, from Patrick Elue, who plays two devout disciples as well as the court bailiff; Elysia Welch as the misunderstood Mary Magdalene; and Luke Rhodri as both the loving Jesus, and a childhood friend to whom Judas showed kindness.
Richard Henderson is chilling as an imperiously seductive Satan; Shaun Llywelyn’s Judas is suitably wretched and broken; Stuart Honeywell convinces both as a self-regarding Sigmund Freud and a humble juror; and Raine takes a break from the bench to play a rather nuanced Caiaphas (the Jewish high priest who neutralised Jesus’ threat to his authority).
Under Michael Fentiman’s direction, the comedy is snappy, and the pathos profound; the piece certainly grows more contemplative as the second act progresses. Tom North-Davies’ lighting design is inventive, and Benjamin Smith’s electronic score is suitably doomy, even during the disco interludes.
The main question on which the plot hangs is that of Judas’ damnation – if his betrayal of Christ was both pre-determined and necessary for the birth of Christianity, why should he be condemned to eternal torment? The answer to this and the numerous other issues raised appears to be: Life is unfair – deal with it.
Unusually for a theology lesson, Last Days Of Judas Iscariot is laced with profane humour, which only dries up as the piece reaches its poignant and surprisingly heartfelt conclusion.. And even if the theme doesn’t appeal, why pass up the chance to see the stars of tomorrow in an intimate space?
Until June 2, 2017