“There’s a concept, Cunningham, called “playing the card you are dealt” – one can either accept that concept, or, one can slowly lose their mind, heart and soul.”
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot premiered in the UK back in 2008 at the Almeida with a colourful and sharp production from Headlong. Producer/director and latterly actor Antony Law’s revival down the road in St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch has removed the colour for an altogether more severe aesthetic and, although there are two sets of cushions on the pews, it is a severity that punishes your posterior as much as anything. The setting of the church has a sombre beauty and occasional acoustic challenges aside, offers a grandeur to this courtroom-set drama with its Alice-in-Wonderland-style oversized judge’s platform but Law rarely exploits the potential of this unique venue and the production suffers a little for it.
Set in Purgatory, the point where souls await their ultimate destination of either heaven or hell, Guirgis puts Judas in the dock and in something of a show trial, a vastly eclectic range of witnesses are called not just to explore the reasons behind his betrayal of Jesus but a wider examination of what it means to be good or to be responsible. So contemporaries like Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas the Elder are interrogated for their culpability whilst luminaries such as Sigmund Freud and Mother Teresa find themselves under the spotlight as their reputations are questioned too. It’s a heady mixture of intellectual argument and showboating pizazz, difficult to pull off and only intermittently successful here.
The gravitas of the more serious side never really rings true, led by a performance from Laurence Bouvard as defence attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham which is a little too one note and devoid of the subtleties necessary to pull us into her argument. She is not helped by the blank canvas that Priyank Morjaria conveys as Judas, so passive a figure even in flashback that it is hard to credit all the fuss being made over him. This air of faux-sincerity creeps in elsewhere too – Peter Marinker’s Caiaphas a stand-out exception along with the genuine humility of Tom Greaves’ Jesus – and it is in these moments that one really feels the somewhat indulgent length of the piece, especially in the coda.
Where this production does succeed is in the flashier, funnier side of things with a series of vivid portrayals that grip the attention. Michael Aguilo’s sycophantic prosecuting lawyer smarms and creeps marvellously, Shereen Russell’s Saint Monica wisecracks and flirts viciously, Kathy Trevelyan’s Mother Teresa almost heretically amusing. And proving that the devil always gets the best parts, Jeremiah O’Connor shines as a sharp-suited Satan, all suave swagger until provoked into unleashing a devastatingly well-played tirade that is the show’s highlight. One is tempted to return a hung jury for this uneven production of an uneven show but in the end, the highs probably outweigh the lows.