The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Almeida, London
Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons, Soho, London
Jingo, Finborough, London
Call the first witness: Mr Satan, take the stand
Sunday 06 April 2008
Douglas Henshall's Satan, called to the witness box in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, rises up through the floor looking like a nightclub-cruising cad, hungry for lost souls, in his snakeskin cowboy boots and satin shirt. Maliciously smirking, he knows everyone's hidden insecurities, even the attorneys'.
This extraordinary, comic and gripping theological courtroom drama by the American playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, staged by Rupert Goold, is surely going to be on the shortlist for Best New Play of the Year.
Raised a Catholic, Guirgis has declared that he still believes in God, one way or another. Yet the play boldly tussles with Christian doctrine as Iscariot's feisty counsel for the defence (Susan Lynch) asks why, if the Lord is really so loving and merciful, Judas is in punitive Hell? And how could the condemned man be responsible for his actions, if the betrayal was predestined?
The legal appeal takes place in Limbo, and the witnesses range from the rabbi Caiaphas to Sigmund Freud. All offer different views of Judas, from disappointed revolutionary to suicidal psychotic. What's fascinating too is Guirgis's blend of the historic and the contemporary, of arcane scholarly facts and vibrant American street talk. Thus, Ron Cephas Jones's dandified Pontius Pilate, accused of anti-Semitism, enthusiastically slates the unreliability of the gospels, discusses his third-century canonisation and slaps down Lynch with: "Dass right – you don't know jack – do you?"
Guirgis is being daringly irreverent, but he is also seriously investigating ethnic tensions in the Roman-occupied Middle East. Moreover, he poignantly explores the nature of remorse, extending it to our everyday lives now. The play ends – gaining a kind of epic sweep which is at once startlingly digressive and intimate – with an ordinary Joe on the skids quietly remembering how he cheated on his wife and wrecked his chance of happiness. If allowed to go slack, the piece could fall apart at the seams, but Goold's production – with projected swirling clouds and city lights – is sharp and slick. Gawn Grainger is scintillating as Caiaphas, sagaciously dignified yet with flashes of ire and self-doubt, and Mark Lockyer is hilariously flailing then razor-sharp as the prosecutor.
In Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons by Wajdi Mouawad, Beverley Klein's Nazha is stuck in an apartment in battle-torn modern Lebanon – a kind of living hell. She is frantically hoping to prepare a marriage feast for her daughter, Nelly. All she has are some rotten potatoes. Bullets and shells whizz past the balcony window, and the whole family appears to be psychologically scarred. The bride is narcoleptic and delusional.
Her brother is aggressively scatological, as is Nazha's husband, who reviles her when he's not suddenly trying to shag her on the dining table. Alas, this is meant to be a semi-surreal dark farce but it excruciatingly misfires. The absurdism and shock tactics are cack-handed, and the insanity never rings true. Frankly, Nelly wasn't the only one reduced to thinking that jumping off the balcony window would be a blessed escape.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Jingo is another painfully awful, increasingly crazy "farce of war", set in Singapore's Raffles Hotel in 1942. Here, a bunch of twerpish, decadent and crazed colonial Brits are about to get trounced by the Japanese. The dramatist Charles Wood is renowned for his Falklands drama, Tumbledown, but this is a verbose drag, all monotonous pukka accents and B-rate acting in Tom Littler's disappointing fringe revival.
Only the tropical temperature of the theatre seemed maddeningly authentic.
'The Last Days of Judas Iscariot' (020-7359 4404) to 10 May; 'Wedding Day at the Cro- Magnons' (0870-429 6883) to 19 April; 'Jingo' (0844-847 1652) to 19 April
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