Brighton Fringe 2015
The Twelfth Disciple
Venue: Otherplace at the Basement: The Pit 24 Kensington St Brighton BN14AJ
S P O I L E R A L E R T
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Judas Iscariot. One of the twelve disciples of Jesus.
His follower – and later, His betrayer, selling his Lord for thirty pieces of silver.
Hated and reviled down through the centuries until his very name became a byword for betrayal, hissed through clenched teeth … "Judas!"
And yet … without Judas’ betrayal of Christ, there could have been no crucifixion, no Passion, no resurrection – and hence no redeeming of Humanity’s sins.
In fact, some early Gnostic sources state that Judas’ betrayal was done with Jesus’ knowledge, and even at His urging, as part of God’s plan for mankind.
So it may not be as simple as it seems . . .
There are steps leading down from the door into The Pit. It’s well named – a small square room with tiered seating rising up on two sides in an L, focussing in on the central space. It has the feel of a old-fashioned medical theatre, where students would gaze down at some scientific demonstration, or an anatomical dissection.
We were looking down at an interrogation.
Youssef was seated handcuffed at a wooden table in the centre of the room. He’s got dark curly hair, cut quite short, and designer stubble on his rather long face. We knew his name because he’d just given it to the man standing over him – the one asking the questions.
This man is slightly older than Youssef, and heavier built. Bearded, in a blue checked shirt and wearing the black combat trousers and boots that mark him as a security official rather than a regular soldier. He’d started by turning on a tape machine to record the interview, charging the prisoner with sedition, with being part of an anti-war movement aiming to bring down the Government – asking for names, dates, meeting locations. When Youssef refused to answer, swore at the Interrogator, he turned off the machine.
"You’re going to tell me what’s illegal!" The man retorted. "You’re in a war zone here, my friend. Legality is for the courts – and you bomb the courts" … "I may be immoral – I may be illegal – but I’m absolutely necessary".
Toby Marriott, the writer of ‘The Twelfth Disciple’, is a student of Theology, and he’s come up with a different possibility for Judas’ actions. What if he was pressured – tortured – into helping the authorities to arrest Jesus? Marriott’s brought the story up to date, with Youssef as one of the followers of a charismatic Leader whose teachings are threatening public order and the status quo.
The writer has carefully made the setting and timing non-specific, but it can’t help but feel like Israel, with military operations against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, bankrolled by American money and weapons; and a growing peace movement among its own citizens, encouraging them to avoid conscription into the armed forces. Gary Faulkner, as Youssef, did in fact look rather Middle-Eastern, Russell Shaw’s Interrogator could have been an Israeli from Europe – or an American ‘consultant’.
The authorities needs to get their hands on this dangerous Leader, and they’ll do whatever is necessary. We were very close to the action in The Pit, and I could feel audience members wincing (as I was myself) as Youssef was tortured. Physical beatings, carried out by a black-clad figure whose face was hidden and who never spoke – but also the Interrogator’s sly threats to the fate of Youssef’s child, and his wife ("good looking woman …"). The Interrogator’s superior officer was there too – she oversaw the questioning.
Alix Cavanagh was dressed in a black trouser suit over a white blouse, with a white headscarf, and she radiated the kind of calm reasonableness that comes from being in complete control of the situation. An icy authority, cloaked in a soft voice. The Interrogator and his Superior had names in the programme, but they never used those names during the performance, and that anonymity gave them another layer of menace and power.
We’ve all heard of ‘waterboarding’, but seeing it close up is very different. "In the old days we could do whatever we wanted to people like you, but things have changed since our allies got more involved – now we have to keep it clean, not leave marks". The silent man in black is slopping a towel into a bucket of water behind Youssef, and as the Superior leaves the room she looks back – "People don’t like scars – too dirty. Water. Water’s clean …"
As Youssef choked, I came close to vomiting – it felt that real.
But to be fair to Israel – almost every State will resort to torture to protect its interests, to keep control of the occupied, the colonised. Like the French in Algeria – extracting names from FLN rebels using blow-torches on their bodies. Or the British in Kenya – crushing Mau-Mau suspects’ genitals with pliers to get a confession. Or the Americans at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Doing whatever is necessary to keep control of the occupied, the colonised.
So Youssef talked, gave them the information they needed. Where to find him, how to recognise him. This follows the traditional story of Judas, but casts him in a much more sympathetic light – an action committed under unbearable pressure is easier to forgive than doing it for a cash reward. A modern gloss on a two thousand year old story. In this version, the Leader is actually Youssef’s own brother.
The Leader is captured, and it’s the next afternoon – yellow sunlight flooding down the stairs into the room – when the Superior informs Youssef that his brother – "was offered to our Allies. But guess what? They don’t want him. They washed their hands of him". In a brilliant bit of writing, Toby Marriott has managed to link the contemporary rendition of ‘terrorists’ to places like Guantanamo Bay, with Pontius Pilate’s refusal to pass judgment on Jesus. Pilate didn’t want any unnecessary blame to fall on the Roman occupation forces, so he handed the troublesome Christ back to his fellow Jews – to condemn Him to death if they wished it.
Here’s where ‘The Twelfth Disciple’ veers towards the Gnostic interpretation of Judas’ story. Youssef taunts his interrogators, tells them that they’ve done exactly what he and his Leader wanted – "He told me that I must do what must be done". That he always intended to give them the information. That the Leader actually wanted to be arrested and brought to trial.
Youssef had assumed that this would lead to unrest and anger in the population, to a mass rebellion, a violent uprising that would rid the country of the occupying forces. But it seems he’s misread the mood of the population – they’re happy for the Leader to be executed. This parallels the Biblical account, where the Jewish Sanhedrin court condemned Jesus to death, and the people called for Barabbas the thief to be released, and Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified.
He has to watch the execution, gazing up the steps towards the street outside, lit by yellow afternoon sunlight flooding into the basement as his Leader, his brother, is hanged from a high crane in front of a large crowd.
But Youssef has misread the intentions of his Leader, too. In Toby Marriott’s play, the anonymous Interrogator – who is actually named as Marshall in the programme – has seen many executions, but this one is not the same. "Your man, he was different – impassive, calm. He even forgave his executioner". He turns on Youssef – "You betrayed your Leader to provoke a revolution that you crave. But violence was never what he wanted".
But who can ever know the mind of God? However Youssef, or Judas, have behaved – following instructions or betraying them – their actions seem to be following God’s plan. And it’s beginning. As with Christ’s crucifixion, the ripples from this Leader’s death are starting to reach out and alter people. Marshall is changed – "I’m out. I’ve had enough. Nothing ever came of violence – nothing ever could". In a beautiful inversion of plot he has become the advocate of non-violence – travelling in the opposite spiritual direction to Youssef.
A thoughtful play, powerfully performed within the confines of The Pit, where the very lack of a large stage concentrated the focus of our attention and amplified the tensions amongst the characters. Tim Marriott’s highly competent direction meant that the story wasn’t confined to a basement room, either. Imaginative use of Matt Derbyshire’s video footage projected onto the back wall gave us a series of excursions into the world above – a landscape of burning buildings, peppered with the rattle of small-arms fire and the crump of mortars or artillery. Violence below mirrored by the violence on the surface.
The play’s writer, Toby Marriott, is still a student at Bristol University. He’s given us a piece of theatre with a gripping narrative, which manages to show us a different set of possibilities of the role of Judas. Should Judas perhaps be regarded as the best of the disciples?