By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Rupert Goold
Venue: Almeida Theatre
Date: Saturday 12th April 2008
This was a good production. It was pretty loud – I only used the headset briefly in the first half, during Simon’s testimony, but I used it a bit more in the second half.
The overall effect was surreal. The play was set in Hope, a suburb of Purgatory, according to a helpful angel. It concerns an appeal hearing on behalf of Judas Iscariot, to get him out of Hell and into heaven. The story jumps around a lot, so I’ll just throw things in as I remember them. St. Monica, resplendent in a red tracksuit, gave us a good insight into Judas’ suffering, and how she was requested to put in a good word with God about helping him. She visits Judas, and finds him frozen in grief, unable to move, with only one tear trickling down his cheek. She’s very moved by this, and does her best to help.
Corey Johnson played the judge who does his best to refuse to hear the case. We find out later that he’d hanged himself when he was on Earth, which is why he was trying cases in Purgatory. Really he should have recused himself in this trial, but that’s the afterlife for you. There’s a young woman lawyer, Cunningham, who’s determined to get him to change his mind and eventually succeeds, and another chap who’s keen to defend against the appeal. He’s so smarmy he took flattery to the next level. He flirted outrageously with Mother Teresa and constantly praised the judge, but he was brought up short by Satan. Cunningham has her own issues, as we discover later, but she’s mainly feisty and determined, and does her best to get Judas’s sentence repealed.
A jury is sworn in – it includes the angel who gave us the introduction at the start – and they sit in the front row of the auditorium, to one side. Witnesses are called, and it’s an illustrious list. One of the first is Satan, played by Dougie Henshall, all svelte and charming in a classy suit, but he could get nasty at times. He was very candid about his activities, but completely denied that he tempted Judas to betray Christ.
Initially, Satan was complaining that a couple of his souls had been nicked, and he wanted replacements, he wasn’t fussy who. He had an unsettling way of looking at the audience at this point. He also reckoned he didn’t compete with God – people were turning up in Hell all by themselves, while he sat on his sofa watching hour long dramas on HBO. I thought there was more humour in this than the audience responded to, and there were some gaps in the auditorium after the interval. The language wasn’t a problem for us – if you watch The Wire regularly, as we do, this was pretty tame – although I probably didn’t get all the cultural references.
Saint Peter told us of ‘Drew running off to be with Jesus. Matthew was also with Peter, and explained the attitude towards Jewish tax collectors. A nun read out a quote from Thomas Aquinas(?) during Mother Teresa’s testimony. She got a bit stroppy at having to read it out a second time, as the prosecution lawyer didn’t get it first time around. Personally I don’t blame him, it was a tricky piece of language.
Satan was recalled to the stand, and was very unhappy about it. He put both counsellors through Hell before continuing. Pilate was called, and arrived in sandy coloured plus fours with purple socks, carrying a golf club. He clearly enjoys all the facilities at the heavenly country club. Despite her best efforts, Cunningham was unable to pin any responsibility for Jesus’ death on him; that’s how cool Pilate was.
The second half started with Monica introducing us to Mary Magdalene. She was clear that she wasn’t Jesus’ wife, but his best friend. Judas was probably his second best friend, chalk to Jesus’ cheese. Jesus argued with Judas a lot, but always loved him. Then we were back into the court case.
Caiaphas gave testimony, and was fairly unmoved about it all, but he still couldn’t explain the difference between his betrayal of Jesus, and Judas’s. There were lots of different arguments put forward, but at times I felt the writer’s own passion had taken over, and I wasn’t able to connect with what was going on. On the whole, I liked Satan’s evidence best – he seemed to be pointing them in a more useful direction, had they cared to take it.
We saw two jury members, apart from the angel we met near the start. One was a woman still on life support back on Earth, so she was dressed in hospital blue; the other was a young man who didn’t yet know he was dead, and who didn’t ask anyone in case he found out. He ended the play by bringing Judas some beer, and then telling him a long story about how he cheated on his wife. At this point Judas has frozen up again, in the pose that Monica found him in earlier. Jesus is sitting on the far desk, having tried to help Judas get past his guilt. It was a fairly downbeat ending, but there was a lot to like during the rest of the play.
The set had a curved box covering the upper level, with a big slit at which characters could appear. Towards the back there was a fireman’s pole, while the floor underneath was a dangerous looking design of random and shattered tiles. To our left, the judge had a desk, to our right was the lawyers’ table and chairs, and in the centre was a manhole cover. Various lights gave a number of different effects, and on the whole I liked the sparse design and jumping from one scene to another without much explanation or sense of place (place on Earth, that is). One exception was Satan’s description of his meeting with Judas at a bar after the betrayal. Judas brought on two bar stools, and his Hawaiian shirt brightened the place up enormously. Satan pretends to be Clementine from Cappadocia, and Judas is so drunk he thinks Cappadocia is in Egypt. Or else he just didn’t care, which is more likely.
There was lots of humour in this, and lots of excellent performances. The down side was that some speeches went on too long, and the energy flagged in the second half with some of the repetitious questioning. I would have liked to have heard more from Judas himself, but then one of the points was that he was too locked up in his guilt and grief to help himself. I was sad that he couldn’t get past those things to accept the forgiveness that was on offer. To sum up, there was much to like, with some rough patches.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me