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POSTED: 18 MAY 2010

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by David Myles

Human Sacrifice Theatre | fortyfive downstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne | Until 30 May

Alarm bells start ringing when you discover there’s a cast of 20. They really begin to get going when you find out you’re about to see a cast of 20 play in a small theatre, for THREE hours.

And it really goes all Saint Peter’s on you, after reading that it’s “loosely based on” The Bible.

In normal circumstances this could see the more half-hearted theatre-goer conveniently wimping out, lingering a little too long over their last mojito and waiting for the perfect moment to blush “Oh look at the time!”

But they’d be wrong to.

Rather than the overly “worthy”, ecumenical diatribe, or the off-the-wall bible-as-musical you were expecting, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is utterly substantial and terrifically fun.

When it opens, you find you’re in Purgatory (and the irony of that wasn’t lost on me), in a courtroom where all the other souls stuck in limbo finally receive their last judgment.

A cantankerous Scottish judge (Bruce Kerr) governs the proceedings, in which his method of choosing cases is as arbitrary as the strike of his gavel. And having been given all of eternity himself to work in this place, who’d blame him for being sore?

A case he can’t refuse soon comes across his desk. It’s driven by the alluring, young defence lawyer Cunningham (Holly Shanahan) who won’t take no for an answer — indeed, she resorts to getting a writ from God himself to force the case open.

Cunningham has a zealot’s determination for the case of Judas Iscariot ... a man who moves through each eternal day in a catatonic state ... a man she believes is a victim of circumstance, wronged by both earthly and unearthly foes ... and a man who should ultimately be rejudged and sent to heaven.

We hear the testimony of his contemporaries, Saint Peter, Mary Magdalene, Pontius Pilate. We hear too, the testimony of Mother Theresa, Freud and even Satan.

From a fairly wobbly premise, the case unfolds to reveal a psychological and philosophical unravelling of our interpretations of one of the most famous stories ever told.

Motivations are examined, evidence is gathered with a forensic passion and through it all the tension balances under it like on a wire.

There are a lot of laughs, a lot of one liners and clever plot twists. But rather than being cheesy, it works.

The script is screwed in tight and each actor knows it. They should be afraid but there’s little evidence of it. There are a couple of noticeable moments where one or two wrestle to master their dialogue but the director, David Myles, has clearly worked this element hard and it pays off.

In fact the dialogue is king in this show. The characterisations are mostly well done with a few stand outs. Mark Diaco’s Satan begins a little soft but is soon stealing the stage. Adam Mattaliano’s El Fayoumy works his sycophantic prosecutor with an unholy charm and in Chantelle Jamieson we see the most appealing portrayal of hard-headed, gangster mamma, Saint Monica - she‘s a show stopper. 

The fiesty Cunningham and the brutally calm Pontius Pilate (Patrick Williams) also give strong and even performances. Linc Hasler as Judias Iscariot really only gets his big scenes towards the end of the play but he’s able to carry his energy through to some demanding action. By play’s end he still manages to split your allegiance, a tough assignment for a character that’s mostly spoken of but rarely seen.

The limited use of projected video as evidence both for the jury (made up of a range of misfits, both ancient and modern) and for back story is well done, although from where we were sitting there was an annoying pylon in the way.

Lighting is respectable as to be unnoticeable and the sound design and live music makes for a spare, cinematic effect. It also manages to offset the comedy with unsettling gravity in a whisker of a moment.

For a show that could end up quite still, Myles has managed to find some natural movement that drives the action forward and makes the play seem shorter than its three hours.

I’ve never had more than a passing interest in Bible stories, and my schoolgirl knowledge of its contents is embarrassingly (wafer) thin. I’m usually the one in the corner asking “but what do you mean, he died for our sins?” waving my mojito wildly. But this humorous cross-examination of one of the most maligned figures in Christian history has reignited my interest.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot strips the religion and myth from the most notorious betrayal in history. It reminds you more than anything, that sometimes the worst thing you can do is be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

CLICK HERE to email Oz Baby Boomers with a comment regarding this play or review.

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