Stewart Lee: What Would Judas Do?

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

The reputation of Judas is enjoying a comeback that even Noel Edmonds must envy. Academics are re-evaluating his role, not just as the betrayer of Christ, but as fulfilling a vital role in his destiny. Even that indefatigable truth-seeker, Jeffrey Archer, is churning out a book in Judas’s defence.

So, what better time for a comedian to enter the debate – and not just any comedian, but the Archbishop Of Blasphemy himself, Stewart Lee; the man who’s overblown opera about a trashy talk show prompted a jihad from the medieval heretic-burning bigots of Christian Voice.

It’ll come as no surprise to these narrow-minded fundamentalists – nor anyone else for that matter – that Lee has also adopted the revisionist, sympathetic approach. In his eyes, Judas was not a traitor, but a disillusioned revolutionary frustrated at Jesus’s lack of action in overthrowing the corrupt Roman state and building a civilisation true to his teachings. He wanted Jesus a martyr, whose death would galvanise his many followers into rebellion – and he honestly believed Jesus wanted the same fate.

Put that way, this sounds more like a theological thesis than a comedy show, but it successfully combines the two. Lee takes on the role of Judas, as if he was a 38-year-old man brought up in the West Midlands. ‘I’ve worn a hat,’ he explains. ‘That’s acting.’

The device allows him to give a fictionalised first-hand account of Christ’s last week on earth. Lee’s Judas is marginalised by the rest of the disciples - always the one to be sent on trivial errands and perpetually sneered at for daring to question their Messiah when his preachings were at their most opaque. This is where Lee’s trademark mocking of the Gospels comes into its hilarious own. This Judas is so pedantic and questioning that he makes Doubting Thomas look like a gullible fool. And the very mundane, matter-of fact discussion of such defining moments in mankind’s history also provide fodder for knowing laughs.

This monologue is not, as detractors who’ve never seen Lee’s work would like to imagine, an out-an-out attack on the tenets of Christianity. Rather, it provokes a debate over the motives and meanings of the Gospels, which any robust religion should welcome. As he so brilliantly demonstrates – in the unlikely event that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did accurately chronicle what Jesus said, what they didn’t catch the way that he said it.

Lee is obviously well read about his subject, and highly engaging in the way he explores it. He interacts with the audience, probing their knowledge of Bible stories and pulling in volunteers to recreate the Last Supper, complete with body and blood of Christ all round in what turns out to be a brilliant sketch about transubstantiation – and that's a phrase you don't see very often. In another context, this could almost be Sunday school, with a creative teacher sparking his pupils’ imaginations. But it’s a lot more amusing than that, and flirts with the sacreligious a lot more freely.

It’s in the grey areas of the Gospels where the comedy lies, and Lee is adept at mining it, although with the help of his director Will Adamsdale – who won the 2004 Perrier for Jackson’s Way – he also ensures there’s some dramatic development. Not so much in the story, as it’s pointed out from the get-go that we all know how it ends, but in the mood. What starts off close to stand-up, with a casual Lee bantering with the audience and setting out his stall without the fourth wall, gradually becomes more weighty and theatrical until the Crucifixion brings proceedings to a surprisingly pathetic end.

This is a very modern take on an ancient story. It’s not hard to see where his inspiration for this version of Jesus came: a once-charismatic man who rose to power on fine rhetoric he couldn’t act upon, who embarked on a fight he had no exit strategy for, and who worries about his legacy while indulging himself in expensive extravagances.

But more than that, it is a mature and intelligent piece of one-man theatre, infused with the dry yet irreverent wit fans of Lee have come to expect, and guaranteed to make you think as much as you laugh.

Reviewed by:Steve Bennett
January 12, 2007

Review date: 1 Jan 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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