Over the past few years Rupert Goold has built a reputation as one of Theatreland’s most sought after directors, with hits including The Tempest and Macbeth, which saw him building a collection of Best Director trophies during last year’s awards season. Goold is back in London at the Almeida with his company Headlong, presenting the European premiere of supernatural courtroom drama The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot. Matthew Amer was in the press night audience.
Strange place, the afterlife; certainly in playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’s mind. In his new play, Hope is a courtroom somewhere between purgatory and heaven, where Corey Johnson’s angry, overbearing judge presides over the future of lost souls. It seems also that somewhere between purgatory and heaven is, roughly speaking, downtown New York; certainly, the rumbling bass, night time traffic imagery and street-talking saints would have us believe that.
The court case at hand aims to reprieve one of the most reviled characters of history, Judas Iscariot. In order to remove sole responsibility for the death of Christ from the shoulders of the fallen disciple, barrister Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (played by Susan Lynch) calls an array of characters to the stand.
As a character witness, Dona Croll’s hard of hearing Mother Theresa is glorified before being undermined by her views on abortion and money. The same battle of attack and riposte follows with Josh Cohen’s confident, deliberating Sigmund Freud, Gawn Grainger’s softly-spoken, restrained Caiaphas the Elder and Ron Cephas Jones’s pimped-up Pontius Pilate.
Douglas Henshall’s slick Satan, all tailored jacket, stylishly carved cane and Saturday Night Fever swagger, has the calm, casual danger of a sleeping volcano. His deep, whiskey-soaked tones and burning eyes could probably convince anyone to do anything.
For all the major themes tackled – religion, morality, truth, faith, the role of the messiah – Adly Guirgis manages to keep the tale packed with laughter.
Much comes from the juxtaposition of the saints – Jessica Williams’s Saint Monica is a street-smart, velour tracksuit-wearing, mouth-running badass who won’t take no for an answer – and much from the playwright’s snappy, sharp ear for language, which, for example, has a gangsta Simon the Zealot proclaim ‘”Jesus had mad skills”.
Mark Lockyer, as the Arabic prosecuting lawyer who would probably chase ambulances and work on dodgy insurance claims if he were practicing in the flesh-and-blood world, revels in his highly comic role, theatrically playing to the gathered courtroom in his over-sized, slightly dirty suit.
Goold’s touch for pacing, placement and effect uses the projection and sound design of Lorna Heavey and Adam Cork to full effect, while never letting it draw attention away from the electricity of Adly Guirgis’s simmering script. In this heavenly courtroom, though, more conundrums are raised and ideas exposed than questions answered.
The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot runs at the Almeida until 10 May.