As hellfire burns and Judas lingers in purgatory, a court case is about to be heard – did Judas commit an unforgiveable sin, or was he innocent all along? From the 19th to 20th November at 7pm, the Fitzpatrick Hall shall transform into that very courtroom for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, directed by Louise Dai and Hannah Samuel-Ogbu, a play that combines entertainment with philosophy and grapples with human imperfection, forgiveness and culpability. I watched a run-through rehearsal of the show, and sat down with cast members Christian Longstaff, Rishi Sharma and Jago Wainwright to talk about it.
Guirgis’ play is not short of ambition, and in his introduction he floats the question of ‘What is it that we need to overcome to truly be “Ourselves”?’. Each scene in the play stages a dialogue that in some way engages in philosophical and theological debate, but the play never fails to continue, fundamentally, to tell a story. I asked the cast what they thought was the most interesting way the show brings something new to Judas’ story. Sharma began with a reminder that Judas’ story being given a modern adaptation is hardly new, but that this one ‘strikes a balance between making light of its subject matter and really delving into it as a part of our national psychology, of our consciousness in general. Since Western culture is so informed by the idea of Jesus and Judas and the latter’s awful sin, it feels wrong not to ask questions about it. Why do we get to be saved, but Judas doesn’t?’ Watching the run, I was certainly spurred to ask questions, and found myself repeatedly changing sides on certain debates as each new character made their case.
Judas, often reduced to a stock character, is instantly humanised in the show’s opening monologue, during which his mother (Katy Lawrence) reminisces about his birth, and as Sharma explains, ‘we get to explore these characters as people, not types. We always read about what it means to be a Judas, like when a football player becomes a ‘Judas’ when they go to a rival team, right? He’s become a lot like a pantomime figure, so you feel he deserves to be treated like a person, like everyone else’.
Longstaff suggests that the play’s boldness makes it unique: ‘what it brings to the Judas story is the huge question of whether or not he can be innocent, which is in Christian terms quite a monstrous thing to consider: can the bloke who’s literally killed the Son of God be innocent?’ He continues to argue that ‘it’s pleasantly and respectfully critical though, questions things in a productive way and constantly juggles antithetical ideas. Can you be religious and make fun of certain religious figures? Can the Judas story be both funny and sad? I hope the answer is yes.’ This is the wonderful thing about the play – no character, not even the lawyers, the judge or Mother Theresa, are safe from moral interrogation.
Noting the modernisation of the play’s language, Wainwright reveals that ‘a lot of it is done in modern, quite sweary slang which paints a lot of these characters in a very different light to how we are used to seeing them. Like Christian said, it strikes this fun balance between being respectful but also F-bombing all over the place in the context of religion.’ This is particularly brilliant in Saint Monica’s (Marie-Ange Camara) expletive-laden monologues, and the script as a whole finds the poetry in common language.
When asked what the biggest challenges of bringing their roles to life were, Wainwright said that ‘well, it’s Jesus, so you do definitely feel a sense of responsibility when you’re playing such a recognisable character. It was a challenge to strike a tone which both portrays Jesus in a positive, respectful light, but also touch on the ambiguity over why he can’t intervene to save Judas’ soul. Processing that has been a really fun challenge.’
Longstaff put his Georgian accent at the top of his list, but ‘at a very close second, it’s having to embody the religiously fundamentalist ideals of wanting to keep Judas out of heaven. My character views him as just a cautionary tale – keep him away! When it comes down to it, Judge Littlefield is ridiculous, he’s weak, and his overinflated attempts to control the scene as much as possible fall apart whenever someone who can shake him enters the stage, such as Pontius Pilate or Satan. I’m a judge, but ironically have to be one of the villains of the story, which is fun!’
Sharma mentions how he ‘didn’t even know until I did this show that Judas hung himself as a result of the shame he felt. This is of course a Christian sin, and I think it’s interesting how we’re reminded that the story doesn’t stop with Jesus’ life ending. Actions have consequences – eternal consequences, especially in the case of Judas. It was a challenge to take a well-established figure and putting him into a context where we’ve gone beyond the story.’
Each cast member then told me what moment they were most excited to see realised on stage, with Longstaff bringing up the arguments between ‘Cunningham (Roma Ellis) and El-Fayoumy (Ayush Prasad) – they’re such good actors, and have a brilliant legal drama type dynamic. And sure, I’m a Georgian megaphone at the back of the stage in almost every scene, but they make it. They’re fantastic. You come for Jesus, you stay for El-Fayoumy. Just saying’. Wainwright is ‘very excited to see anything involving Freud, because Bella Ridgwell has this incredible, thick German accent that she puts on for the role which is just amazing to listen. She dons the Freud beard and just goes on sputtering these insane ramblings. It’s gonna be awesome’. Sharma calls attention to ‘the final line in the play, which I won’t spoil, which is one of the best lines in theatre that I’ve ever come across. We are left wondering about what happens to the everyday person who sin and fall as Judas has, and how we can ever hope to get forgiveness’.
Perhaps my favourite element of the play was the brilliant contrast between comedic and serious scenes. But this is not the only pair of antitheses at play – the cast tell me that central to the play is the question of how religion can be cruel and merciful at the same time. Cunningham mentions Hegelian dialectics in the show, and the play asks you to think about what truth is revealed when these sides of religion come together.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot will be running at the Fitzpatrick Hall, Queens’ College at 7pm from November 19th to 22nd. Tickets can be bought from https://bats.tessera.events/tickets/the-last-days-of-judas-iscariot