Almeida Theatre, London N1
Opened 3 April, 2008

It has been quite some while since I saw a show that teetered so crazily on the knife-edge between smart reinvention and crass absurdity. Stephen Adly Guirgis set out to present the various issues around the death of Judas in modern colloquial American... often street talk (at one point a distinctly hip-hoppy Saint Monica compares the disciple’s bad-boy zeal to Tupac Shakur), and certainly expletive-peppered. Fine. It’s also understandable that the most accommodating dramatic genre for such an examination would be a courtroom drama, so we are presented with a supposed appeal hearing (though in effect a retrial) in Purgatory, with testifying parties including Mother Teresa, Freud, Pilate and Satan. Guirgis knows that the genre is something of a cliché, and both indulges and subverts it; so Susan Lynch’s defence counsel is constantly giving the audience significant looks as if we were the jury she was playing to, in contrast with Mark Lockyer’s prosecutor who is one of the lunatic characters Lockyer so excels at, constantly using his loquacious oiliness to try to cover his procedural incompetence.
Director Rupert Goold, who has previously staged imaginatively radical versions of Paradise Lost and Doctor Faustus, has been naturally drawn to a play such as this which doesn’t just sail close to the wind of risibility but repeatedly tacks across it. One problem is that Guirgis, although clearly intelligently engaged with a whole barrowload of topics ranging from the historical revisionism of the scriptures to theological matters of free will, cannot always dress up the information he needs to convey, and so amid the bizarrerie come moments of plonking earnestness such as when defence counsel puts it to the hoodie Simon the Zealot, “Judas sought to create God in his own image, God the angry avenger”, or the opening words of Jesus of Nazareth (often present in flashbacks or sidelights but only uttering his first lines two and three-quarter hours into the proceedings), “Right now I am in Fallujah, I am in Darfur…”. The more earnest Guirgis grows – first with an indictment from Satan, then with a Jesus/Judas confrontation which inexplicably shades into an autobiographical closing monologue from the foreman of the jury – the more the wind goes out of the play’s sails, and it becomes apparent that however gaudily painted the vessel or rollicking the journey, there is no identifiable destination.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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