The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Stephen Adly Guirgis

Almeida Theatre

(2008)

Review by Philip Fisher

Blasphemy is not meant to be this much fun. The irony of the evening is perfectly demonstrated by the four words of the American national motto "In God we Trust" posted above the stage but angrily debated rather than passively accepted.

Back in the 70s, there is little doubt that Mary Whitehouse or someone of her ilk would have been ringing up a lawyer to see whether it was possible to ban this mischievous take on religion, humanity and contemporary American life. Today, viewers are probably a little more mature.

Rupert Goold, the artistic director of Headlong Theatre, was probably an obvious choice to direct this British premiere of an amazingly ambitious play by popular American actor/writer Stephen Adly Guirgis, who made his name over here with Jesus Hopped 'A' Train. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot might draw comparisons with Angels in America, which Daniel Kramer directed for Headlong last year and Goold has already proved himself adept at jumping between Shakespeare and the far more modern.

On this occasion, he makes the most of a talented cast, all of whom get opportunities to shine through close to three hours of updated biblical biography exploring amongst other things "the Americanisation of the afterlife".

The drama takes place in an area identified as Hope or, less optimistically, Downtown Purgatory. In the eyes of designer Anthony Ward this is visualised as something of a rundown building site backed by a panoramic screen on which lively images are projected, accompanied by loud house or hip-hop, at least through the first half.

There, Joseph Mawle's Judas Iscariot is put on trial and the enormities that he has committed in betraying the man whom he believes to be the Messiah are viewed with both malice and compassion. His chances of acquittal are, to say the least, limited since the judge played by Corey Johnson is an ornery old type with zero sympathy for the accused, who faces eternal damnation if he loses his appeal.

The attorneys could not be more contrasting, though both parts bring out the best from excellent actors. For the defence, Irish actress Susan Lynch plays Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, a bold, confident lawyer with a problematic past. She is opposed by a tic-ridden, sycophantic Arab from Hell (literally), Yusef El-Fayoumy, played by Mark Lockyer looking uncannily like Borat.

These two battle it out, calling witness after witness including such anachronistic luminaries as Mother Teresa, indicted for awful sins about which the world probably knows little, Sigmund Freud, Caiaphas the Elder and the incredibly foulmouthed Santa Monica leading a whole host of Saints, who also include Simon the Zealot, now a hoodie played by John McMillan.

The big guns though are three major biblical figures. First in line is a favourite actor of this writer, the imperious Ron Cephas Jones imported from New York's LAByrinth Theater Company to play Pontius Pilate. In this version, he is a hip drug baron of a golfing Soul brother, totally proud and unrepentant about having sent Jesus to his death.

Equally overbearing is Douglas Henshall who has a great time as a self-satisfied Satan, a part played by another writer/actor Eric Bogosian in New York. He is first seen appearing in a cloud of smoke and, appropriately, looks so sharp that you might expect to cut yourself getting near him.

Finally, the most sympathetic witness of all is the man that everybody has been waiting for, Jesus of Nazareth himself, played by Edward Hogg. He attempts to pour oil on troubled waters, forgiving the man who is responsible for his death but in so doing, condemning him to an eternity of hellish misery.

As well as the actors in the major parts, every one of whom impresses, several others including Amanda Boxer, Jessika Williams, Josh Cohen and Gawn Grainger distinguished themselves in one or more cameos, while Howard Harrison's colourful lighting is also worth a mention.

Stephen Adly Guirgis ensures that there is much bawdy comedy to lighten some pretty serious debate about religion and philosophy 2000 years ago but with numerous contemporary reference points. For the most part, his theological lessons are delivered with great likeness in a modern New York vernacular that contains language which is rich, street-smart and poetic by turns, although arguably.

After a couple of dud productions of earlier plays in this country, Stephen Adly Guirgis, who also has an opening in New York this week, should be proud of what his director has achieved.

While The Last Days of Judas Iscariot might occasionally get lost in its own debate and thus might have benefited from a little cutting, it will undoubtedly prove to be one of the most exciting and challenging new plays that London sees this year.

Playing until 18th May