The strongest dramatic element in Jesus Christ Superstar was the symbiotic relationship between Jesus and Judas, and that story is at the centre of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, a powerful, challenging and thrillingly theatrical American play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed at the Almeida Theatre by Rupert Goold in a co-production with Goold’s own Headlong Theatre.

In its mix of theological fervour, street-level demotic language, noisy gesture and intimations of sublimity, the show comes across as a companion piece to a pair of striking recent Headlong projects: Goold’s gloriously ambitious staging of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Daniel Kramer’s revival of Angels in America. The scene is a contemporary, purgatorial New York, where an appeal is launched against Judas’s reputation as a traitor.

The witnesses include Mary Magdalene (Poppy Miller), a cringing, walnut-featured Mother Theresa (Dona Croll), Sigmund Freud (Josh Cohen) and the high priest Caiphas who manages in Gawn Grainger’s touching and subtly inflected performance to sound both Jesuitical and rabbinical. Who’s to blame, Judas for the act of betrayal, or Jesus for leading him on?

The star witnesses are Douglas Henshall’s sleek and charismatic Satan, rising from the cellar in a cool white jacket to chew the fat and exchange shirts with Joseph Mawle’s increasingly desperate Judas in Bathsheba’s downtown bar and grill; and Ron Cephas Jones’s cultured Pontius Pilate, interrupted en route to the golf course to unleash a tirade of anti-semitism against the political awkward squad in Judaea.

The compelling Cephas Jones – who played Othello for Goold at Northampton – appeared in Giurgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002 and, like the author, visits from the New York company LAByrinth founded by John Ortiz and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who directed Jesus Hopped).

Judas’s appeal is being heard by Corey Johnson as the gavel-banging judge and argued over by Mark Lockyer as an hilariously Sacha Baron Cohen-style Egyptian prosecuting counsel and a crazily impassioned Susan Lynch as his opposite defending number.

Goold’s production, designed by Anthony Ward, has a wonderful, baggy splendour about it, with a wide-screen upper level where psychedelic city projections bounce around the constant legend “In God We Trust” and an extraordinary coda in which a juryman (Shane Attwooll) puts the Judas case in human perspective with his own extended confession.

Yes, the play is too long (three hours including an interval). Yes, there is too much shouting. But something like this is so unusual in the theatre at the moment we should celebrate even its flaws. Joseph Mawle – who played Jesus on television over Easter – is a sensation as Judas, veering between ecstatic misery and catatonic stillness. And Amanda Boxer as a distraught mother haunts the evening with her opening, anguished plea: “If my son is in hell, there is no heaven.”

--Michael Coveney