"A story about a very human betrayal": interpreting the trial of Judas Iscariot
Director Matthew Xia on the influences behind Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, from the Gnostic Gospels to Making a Murderer.
Judas: I made a mistake! And if that was wrong, then you should have told me! And if a broken heart wasn’t sufficient reason to hang, THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE TOLD ME THAT, TOO!
Jesus: Don’t you think… that if I knew that it would have changed your mind…that I would have?
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is unlike any play I’ve directed. The framing device of a New York style courthouse, somewhere in downtown Purgatory, and the trial of the most infamous of Biblical characters, creates a script that functions much more as a theological argument than as a narrative driven drama. More a dissection of a story, than the unfolding of one.
Of course, as with courtrooms everywhere, fictional or real, it is an incredibly nuanced and tense adventure as events and characters are hauled in front of the law, scrutinised and used to score points for the defence and prosecution attorneys.
The designer James Turner and I saw a chance to further scrutinise the characters and the arguments presented in the play by borrowing elements from the wave of true-crime Netflix documentaries like Making a Murderer or The Staircase, that have recently been streamed.
It’s been unusual to see a room full of people checking their Bibles to answer questions about character choices! We have become obsessed with the canon of biblical books throughout this rehearsal process; how it was put together and by whom; the Gnostic Gospels; Satan, as a fallen angel and as a metaphor; the Roman/Judaean War; and the many ways the story of Jesus and Judas has been interpreted or manipulated according to the perspective of the time.
However, at the heart of this script, are the simple themes of free will and responsibility.
Stephen Adly Guirgis has managed to take this epic story, repeated and developed by the writers of the Synoptic Gospels, and make it completely current and accessible - in the rehearsal room it became known as The Gospel of Stephen.
The vernacular, modernity and setting of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot allows for questions of epic, almost divine, proportions to be tussled with at a human level, regardless of personal faith.
This is a story about the choices and consequences that come with the concept of free will. This is a story about a very human betrayal: is it possible to find forgiveness from others if one hasn’t yet accepted their own?
I am a huge fan of Stephen Adly Guirgis and his company LABrynth Theatre who operate in New York. His plays fizz and bristle with sparks, speak to the here-and-now in a brutally direct language and somehow manage to make the most evangelical of atheists ask questions about faith and ‘the spirit’.
It has been an absolute pleasure working on this production with the students at RADA.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot plays at RADA until Saturday 27 October. Find out more and book tickets.