Is Judas Iscariot the ultimate fall-guy, unfairly damned for his necessary role in what was once called The Greatest Story Ever Told? Is his sin — of “selling out the Son of God” — absolutely unforgivable, even by a God of Infinite Love? Cunningham, a young female lawyer with a clear grudge against monotheistic deities, forces a highly reluctant court in Purgatory to hear her appeal on behalf of Judas Iscariot who, after 2,000 years, still lies in a catatonic state in Hell.
Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis is the latest in a very long line of writers who have deliberately imagined the afterlife in terms of a warped reflection of their own present day world. So Guirgis’s vision of Purgatory is downtown New York, replete with plumbing, a movie house and an all-too-American weakness for litigation. This is entertaining enough to start with, though it does get somewhat repetitive and bubble-gum sickly-sweet by the close: when you get St Monica reincarnated as mouthy urban white trash and Pontius Pilate as a golf-fixated executive, you begin to realise that Mother Teresa got off lightly with a few lame jokes about her deafness and her willingness to take money from dictators.
This is a play with plenty of small character roles for those wanting a small moment under the stage lights; there are numerous court officials, bit-players and witnesses for both the defence and prosecution, including the aforementioned Mother Teresa, Caiaphas, Sigmund Freud and Satan. Because of this, previous professional productions on both sides of the Pond have tended, for budgetary reasons, to require actors to play more than one role. To their credit, Theatre Oikos (based at Bradfield College) at least present a full young cast, numbering more than two dozen people, which is an increasingly rare sight on the Fringe. Given that the play is essentially set within a courtroom, this wide and varied casting helps ensure the piece doesn’t feel quite as claustrophobic as it could have done.
Yet this is, on occasions, a somewhat erratic production; some performances from the ensemble cast on their opening show were less forced and distracting than others, although even the best were prone to the occasional slipped line here and there. The likes of Jack Sieff (as prosecuting counsel Al Fayoumy) and Harry Gaff (as a suave, sophisticated yet undoubtedly chilling Satan) held the audience’s attention while they were on stage, while Eleo Tibbs and Harrison Charles enlivened the broad strokes outlining (respectively) Mother Teresa and Freud. Jacob Crossley does what he can with Judas Iscariot, given the character’s generally passive, flashback existence within the play.
Overall, though, there’s a sense that the cast had not quite “got a hold” on the full dynamics within the play, with character’s revelations failing to inspire sufficient empathy or disgust. Which, given the subject matter, was a shame.