A man’s character is defined by his actions. Judas Iscariot’s character has been defined by his act of betrayal towards Jesus. Whether he embodied kindness, compassion or selflessness is neither here nor there when his fateful kiss led to Jesus’ arrest, trial and subsequent death. Never being able to cope with this own betrayal, Judas ultimately commits suicide by hanging himself from the branch of an olive tree damning him to an afterlife in hell. But what if Judas wasn’t such a bad guy after all? What if Judas suffered from a mental illness? What if he did not realise the true consequences of his actions and tried to recant? What if he misunderstood Jesus’ intent and selling him out was the only way to truly protect the people and all that they had been working for? Or, what if Judas was really just the malicious man he is portrayed to be? A man who would reveal his friend to the Sanhedrin assembly for 30 pieces of silver.
Since his death, Judas has been in a catatonic state which no one can seem to break. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot wants to understand why Judas did what he did and tries to give a voice to a story that no one is necessarily interested in hearing. And so begins the trial for Judas Iscariot’s remaining afterlife. Should he be eternally damned in the pits of hell or should he be granted a reprieve and be allowed into heaven? Both St Peter and God signed a writ asking for such a trial to take place. The court knows Judas betrayed Jesus, this is an indisputable fact, but what they are trying to determine is if he feels remorse or if there was some unexplained reason for his actions. Unlike mortal trials, trials held in purgatory are about an individual’s intentions, not their actions and this is how Judas’ fate will be determined.
The trial calls a slew of witnesses and experts to the stand who give testimony to their knowledge of the event in question (Pontius Pilate, Simon the Zealot and Satan) or to their knowledge of human character (Mother Theresa, Sigmund Freud). Actor Carl Kennedy (Simon the Zealot/Pontius Pilate) is captivating to watch. He commands attention with the most subtle of facial expressions and during a heated exchange between Pontius Pilate and defense counsel Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (actress Katharine Venour) Kennedy exudes such power over the character I was swayed to believe Pontius’s assertion that Judas was malicious in his intent. Because the trial appears to take place in present day, many of the characters reflect behaviours or mannerisms of current society but in doing so promote gender and racial stereotypes. For example, the character of the defence counsel is mocked for her mixed heritage background and degraded by the male characters as being either a bitch or a sexual object. Saint Monica is portrayed as a tough-talking, no nonsense black woman with a penchant for nagging, cursing, expressive body movements and for controlling the situation. While the stereotypes are a minor quibble, it distracted me from appreciating the story that was trying to be told.
Director Stephen Drover makes excellent use of The Cultch theatre having multiple characters deliver their lines from the balconies enabling the audience to feel more connected to the story. While I enjoyed elements of the play, the intimate connection created by Drover’s direction, left me feeling a little robbed by the court’s verdict. In the end, damning testimony by Pontius Pilate and Satan preclude Judas from being allowed into heaven. Or does it? A conversation between a conscious Judas and Jesus demonstrates that it is Judas himself who is preventing his own ascension into heaven. Jesus tries to reason with Judas saying that he loves him and forgives his betrayal but Judas stops listening. I felt as though the trial was a waste of time considering Judas’ fate was, and always had been, in his own hands. A final story told by one of the Jurors (Butch Honeywell, actor Ron Reed) crystallises the sentiment the play was trying to portray: if one can take responsibility for their faults and forgive themselves, the despair and regret that consumes them will dissipate and allow them to return to the person they truly are.
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Bob Frazer as Judas, Todd Thompson as Jesus photo by Tim Matheson