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The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Stephen Adly Guirgis
Until 10 May 2008
Almeida Theatre, Islington

Joseph Mawle as Judas

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is no conventional retelling of Christ's betrayal, as you would expect from Stephen Adly Guirgis, author of Jesus Hopped the A-Train, a controversial hit several years ago in New York, the Edinburgh Fringe and London. Guirgis delights in tackling vexed theological questions that other playwrights - perhaps wisely - shy away from. In Jesus Hopped the A-Train Christ befriends a particularly nasty serial killer on his way to execution. In this new play he explores Judas's motives in betraying his master. Was he part of God's plan to bring about salvation for mankind through the crucifixion and resurrection or was he exercising his own free will?

To try to answer these questions, Guirgis stages the trial of Judas in a courtroom in Purgatory, a place that seems to bear a remarkable resemblance to present-day New York. Drawing on just about every US television courtroom drama you've ever seen, he gives us a cynical world-weary judge with a brutal line in put-downs for everyone who appears before him. Counsel for the defence is a feisty and beautiful young woman (played by the Irish actress Susan Lynch), while the prosecution attorney comes straight from the Borat school of law in his ill-fitting suit and more than an eye for anything in a skirt. Under a sign ironically reading In God We Trust a jury is sworn in - one of them such a recent arrival that she's still wearing her hospital gown and respirator mask - and witnesses are called. St Peter is still defensive about his betrayal of Christ by denying him three times (something Judas's defense attorney is quick to pick up on); St Thomas is still doubting. Pontius Pilate, fetchingly dressed in plus-fours, washes his hands of the whole affair again, saying he really can't stay as he's teeing off in less than an hour. Mother Teresa is loud in her condemnation of Judas, despite attempts to discredit her with accusations of accepting some dodgy contributions for her orphanages in India, and Sigmund Freud declares Judas psychotic and therefore not responsible for his actions.

The line-up of witnesses seems endless. Boredom and frustration set in as Guirgis strives more and more outrageously ­for comic effect, determinatio not to take his subject too seriously. There are uncomfortable reminders of Jerry Springer: The opera, particularly in the character of a foul-mouthed St Monica who acts as a kind of Greek chorus. But Guirgis saves the best witness till last - Satan appears through a trap door, accompanied by vast clouds of dry ice, deafening rock music and enough strobe lighting to give you a headache for a week. He's given all the best lines, as well as the sharpest look - here the Devil wears not Prada but Gucci and sports the coolest pair of black snakeskin boots this side of purgatory. Discussing the theory that hell is the absence of God, he insists this can be a advantage if you're having a wild night out on the town: 'You'll have a much better time without him. Trust me on this'.

But where is Judas himself while all this is going on? Up to this point he's been a constant presence on stage as an observer. But in an extraordinarily powerful performance by Joseph Mawle (last seen playing Christ in the BBC's recent Passion) he is eloquent in his agony of self-loathing. Satan under cross-examination recalls an encounter with Judas in Bathsheba's Bar and Grill. The scene is played in flashback, and disconcertingly we see Judas derive some comfort from Satan's interest in him. There's a touching moment when they even swap shirts, so that Judas wears the Gucci, while Satan is left with Judas's truly awful Hawaiian-design cast-off. 'Nice shirt', says Satan, and you feel he's just gathered in another soul.

These two performances by Joseph Mawle and Douglas Henshall dominate the play and make up for a lot of its weaknesses. Mawle conveys his internal agony with every move he makes, every harsh word he utters, while Henshall is full of sinister suavity as he dominates the courtroom, then elemental fury as he sees Judas's soul might indeed find redemption and slip away from him.

This is a long, rambling, unfocused play with too many Jerry Springer moments for comfort. But there's no doubt that it also possesses wit, vitality and sheer chutzpah, though they're quite thinly spread out over three hours. There's a final encounter between Judas and Christ, which surely should have been the dramatic high point, but by then after so much sheer verbosity and in-your-face crudity, it fails to make the impact it should. The interest in the scene should lie in Judas's refusal to accept the redemption offered by Christ - but it fizzles out into a weak and directionless ending.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is brave enough to take on such a big theme, but unfortunately seems to have more belief in its own abilities to entertain than in the issues it seeks - and mostly fails - to explore.

Judith Elliott