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Review Round-up: Goold Redeems Judas Iscariot

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Fresh from winning three Best Director gongs (at the Olivier, Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard Awards) for his Patrick Stewart-headed Macbeth, Rupert Goold’s new UK production, the European premiere of American Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, opened last night (3 April 2008, previews from 28 March) at the Almeida Theatre, where it runs until to 10 May (See News, 30 Oct 2007).

A longtime member of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s New York LAByrinth Theatre Company, Adly Guirgis is best known in this country for his critically acclaimed Jesus Hopped the A Train, which transferred from the Donmar Warehouse to the West End in 2002. This new piece, first seen at New York’s Public Theatre in 2005, is comic courtroom drama in which history’s most infamous betrayal is dissected by the forces of good and evil. Figures such as Pontius Pilate, Mother Theresa and Sigmund Freud are called to testify in a trial of God and the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth versus Judas Iscariot in a court that owes as much to the ghetto as the Gospels.

The Headlong Theatre production reunites Goold with his Macbeth creative team: designer Anthony Ward, lighting designer Howard Harrison and sound designer Adam Cork. The ensemble cast features Douglas Henshall (as Satan), Joseph Mawle (Judas) and Edward Hogg (Jesus) as well as Susan Lynch, Gawn Grainger, Joseph Mawle, Dona Croll, Corey Johnson, Amanda Boxer and Mark Lockyer.

Overall, first night critics enjoyed this “gloriously intoxicating brew” on a subject of faith that is “so unusual in the theatre at the moment”, with many drawing comparisons between it and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which was revived by Headlong last year. Amongst the cast’s “high-octane” performances, Joseph Mawle – who played in the recent BBC mini-series The Passion - was particularly lauded for his “astonishingly fine” portrayal of Christ’s betrayer Judas. While the Daily Mail took serious exception to Adly Guirgis’ irreverent approach to religion, most other critics’ appreciated it, quibbling more about the length of the play (over three hours).

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “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 … 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 Billington in the Guardian (four stars)- “Sex and politics are common. But religion has become taboo in modern drama. It returns, wittily and exuberantly, in this play by Stephen Adly Guirgis … What gives the play its life is that Guirgis handles big issues with comic flair. Simon the Zealot, for instance, recalls that, after the riot at the Temple, Jesus was ‘like I'm going to die soon so let's just chill’. Guirgis is making a serious point: that, if betrayal is the ultimate sin, then forgiveness is the ultimate sign of grace. These are matters rarely debated on the London stage; and Goold's production gives full weight to Guirgis' rich text. Anthony Ward's design surrounds the action with a circular screen full of technicolour urban images. The performances are also high-octane. Mark Lockyer as the Egyptian prosecutor is all flighty jokiness while Susan Lynch endows his opponent with a mixture of fury and despair. Douglas Henshall also makes a suitably sensational appearance as a cool Satan. And there are fine cameos from Gawn Grainger as Caiaphas seeking divine, rather than human, forgiveness and from Dona Croll as a bewinged angel. I admit the play sometimes sprawls, and but it is a gloriously intoxicating brew that, in its fantasy and daring, reminds me of Tony Kushner's equally high-flying Angels in America.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Of all the strange meetings that could be dreamed into theatrical life, or afterlife, would many be more worth witnessing than Jesus’ first close encounter since the crucifixion with Judas Iscariot, who killed himself after his betrayal of the Messiah? Just such a scene, rivetingly imagined, brings this extraordinary religious fantasy, by that promising American playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, to a close and a consummation … Despite his refusal to treat Christianity with conventional reverence, Guirgis embarks on a deadly serious mission. He poses hard questions about how a merciful God can create hell and withhold forgiveness; how Judas, the closest of disciples, came to betray and whether he can be held responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. Susan Lynch’s handsome, too histrionic lawyer summons Henshall’s artful Satan, whose nonchalant winsomeness sounds worse than his snarling invective. These revelations help charge the climactic meeting between Judas and Edward Hogg’s serene Jesus with transfixing pathos … There is no missing how Joseph Mawle’s astonishingly fine Judas electrifies the stage with his grief-stricken sense of fury and his strange conviction he was betrayed by the Jesus he worshipped, loved and lost. I cannot recall a young actor whipping up such an intense emotional storm. Guirgis gives theology a dramatic edge — even for agnostics.”

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (two stars) - “There is a good play to be written about Judas Iscariot, but this is not it. Over-long, over-written, it basks too much in its own cleverness. Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis plainly thinks he is fantastically witty, but his humour relies too heavily on the bathos of historical figures, including Christ’s apostles, talking in the filthy, shallow language of the American ghetto. It’s all a bit silly. And yet The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is not without merit. It has interesting flashes and director Rupert Goold draws some good performances from a quirky cast. Goold should perhaps have insisted on some cuts to the script, if not widespread rewriting … Some passages are plain childish, attempting to shock … Happily, the three-hour show does improve – but not for quite some time … Judas is played by Joseph Mawle, who certainly gives him a look of stunned, mute disbelief at the magnitude of what he has done. Mawle spends long stints staring open-mouthed at the audience. This is harder than it looks and I found his horror rather moving. Sadly, Guirgis does not give Judas the central role. That goes instead to Judas’ lippy defence attorney, who is a cliché of just about every other lippy defence attorney you have ever seen in any American courtroom drama. This weakness for caricature and formulaic American comedy-speak (a language deader than Latin) is the worst flaw in the play. Few of the characters are convincingly human … Goold and his players will do better work. But will Guirgis? I rather suspect he may have peaked and will not be heard of again.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “When we go to the English theatre for a play about religion we’re likely to be rewarded with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which tells the kids that God is dead, or with Howard Brenton’s Paul, which claims that the protagonist’s Damascene conversion was the result of a con-trick by some desperate disciples. But in America, cynicism isn’t so prevalent and intelligent dramatists like Stephen Adly Guirgis have a metaphysical sense that they’re not embarrassed to show or share. Hence Guirgis’ fine Jesus Hopped the A Train, which dealt with questions of fate and free will and suggested that there was spiritual value even in a serial killer en route to execution. And hence Guirgis’ less impressive but more complicated new play, which takes the disciple who betrayed Jesus and was damned to Hell as a result and subjects him to a trial in ‘downtown purgatory’, a place whose accents and the legal processes are pure New York. Too much New York, maybe … There’s a jocularity, even a facetiousness, which suggests that Guirgis doesn’t trust his subject’s inherent seriousness … There are plenty of questions about how a loving God can create Hell and allow damnation, but no answer to them or, indeed, about what motivated Iscariot … I can’t think of a British dramatist who would begin to consider such an idea.”

    - by Kate Jackson

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