The ‘last days’ of the title is used in a Milennarian sense – we are at Judas’s Judgement Day, at a trial which ostensibly will determine whether Judas should be released from the 9th Circle of Hell, which is where Dante consigned traitors. There is a Judge straight out of an American made-for-TV courtroom drama, plus a prosecutor and defendant, and various Biblical and non-Biblical witnesses.

At the core of the drama is that old theological chestnut, Free Will vs Predestination. Further, if by betraying Jesus Judas was enabling him to fulfil the path laid out for him by God’s plan, wasn’t he doing the Saviour a favour? And why, when Thomas was literally given the benefit of the doubt and Peter was forgiven for denying Christ three times, was Judas cut such a rough deal. And if Jesus saw what was coming (Matthew 26 and John 6), shouldn’t He at least have had the courtesy to warn him? Further, the play suggests that Judas desperately tried to give back the thirty pieces of silver to both the priest Caiaphas (Matthew 27) and the Romans (unbiblical), before hanging himself. In other words, he sincerely repented.

Speculation abounds about motive. The most plausible is that he was somehow trying to provoke Jesus into leading an uprising against the Romans, which is what the Messiah was generally supposed to do. The gnostic Gospel According to Judas suggests he did it because Jesus asked him to.

As a piece of historial detective work, the play asks more questions than it answers. However, the final dialogue, between Judas and Jesus suggests that Judas is in Hell because this is where he puts himself by refusing to forgive himself and accept that he is redeemable. In other words, it’s his own fault. This shallow and literally self-centred view of the world strikes me as peculiarly American, in line with all those books about taking control of your own life and becoming rich, powerful, attractive, etc. At its extreme this is the world view which blames the sufferer for not having the will-power to beat cancer. I’m surprised that no American therapist has written “How to Get Yourself Out of Hell”.

Perhaps the real test of the play is how it works for an unbeliever. A good play will carry you through character, language and dramatic situation; it will make you care. After all, you don’t have to be an expert on 11th century Scottish history to buy into Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Here I have to put my cards on the table, as an aggressive atheist. By aggressive, I mean that not only do I not believe in God, I regard religion (particularly monotheistic religion) and its institutions as one of the greatest sources of death, torture, unhappiness and all-round evil of the last three thousand years. Further, I regard the numerous and conflicting accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth as largely fairy tales, and the contortions to which Christians put themselves to try to reconcile these accounts as rather pathetic and desperate, not to mention meaningless.

So, does the play work for me? I’m afraid not. The basic structure of a trial is usually seen as inherently dramatic, but it does depend on a progression in terms of an unfolding story and developing likelhood of guilt and innocence, as well as involvement in the courtroom characters. Here there is a basic imbalance, in that while Laurence Bouvard plays The Defence straight down the middle, Michael Aguilo as Prosecutor is both written and played for laughs. They seem to be in different plays.

The parade of witnesses includes Mother Teresa and Sigmund Freud who are alternately credited with authority and probed for their integrity. On the one hand Teresa is an incipient saint who gave her life to the poor of Calcutta; on the other she declared abortion was the greatest obstacle to world peace when she accepted the Nobel Prize, and took money, largely unaccounted for, from dictators and fraudsters. (Perhaps more relevant in the context of the play is her refusal to allow painkillers even for serious conditions, on the grounds that pain brings you closer to Christ.) There is only sporadic reference to Judas’s life, with a fictive childhood incident, and Peter and Thomas giving very vague sketches of someone who was a bit of a loose cannon but unaccountably a special favourite of Jesus. There are also brief but trite glimpses of the life of some of the Jurors.

None of which really goes anywhere. Judas is only a shadowy figure, leaving a vacuum at the centre of the play. At nearly three hours in a cold and uncomfortable church this is a singularly tough watch. The echoing acoustic makes for long sections which are difficult to catch; paradoxically it is the quieter, underplayed characters who suit it best. Not that it’s badly performed or directed – in particular Jeremiah O’Connor is a fine whimsical Satan and Lawrence Walker, who turns Pontius Pilate into a kind of Norman Schwartzkopf figure, also makes his mark. But I found it very hard to care about any of it.

Reviews by Peter Scott-Presland

Charing Cross Theatre

Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris

★★★
Jermyn Street Theatre

Return of the Soldier

★★★
Southwark Playhouse

Eye of a Needle

★★★★
Rosemary Branch Theatre

The Trial of the Jew Shylock

★★★
Southwark Playhouse

In The Heights

★★★★

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The Blurb

In this epic court room drama, set in a time-bending world between heaven and hell, Guirgis explores love, betrayal, forgiveness and hope. St Leonard's church provides the perfect setting for this powerful, engaging, and often laugh-out-loud play. Bringing together characters as diverse as Sigmund Freud, Mary Magdalene, Mother Teresa and Satan, Guirgis finds one thing that we all have in common: humanity.

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