As we file down the stairs into a claustrophobic, bunker-like theatre, a figure in a balaclava guards the door. A charismatic young man is waiting to talk to us; to deliver a lecture about sacrifice, and about God. You probably think you have the measure of this – that you know which religion the man will be expounding. But listen carefully… for within a few moments, you’ll realise that you’re wrong.
The Twelfth Disciple is a fascinating project: a re-telling of the Christian story, using motifs and images garnered from the modern-day Middle East. Cast as citizens of a chaotic, violent state, we learn that we live under a regime shored up by foreign aid, maintained by the constant threat of torture. The man we find in front of us preaches not violence, but love – the unconditional forgiveness which forms the cornerstone of Christian belief. But just as your expectations begin to settle again, there’s another swerve to contend with. For this charismatic man isn’t Jesus, but Judas – the man the Bible tells us betrayed Christ to the Romans, bringing about his death.
Writer Toby H Marriott delivers a subtle, thoughtful metaphor for the Biblical tale, filled with parallels that are highly suggestive but never feel forced. The key points are all there – the Last Supper, the thirty pieces of silver, even a reference to washing hands – but they’re recast, entirely credibly and sometimes daringly, in the setting of 2015. Most strikingly of all, there’s no crucifixion: the Jesus of this play is hanged. By allowing himself that latitude, Marriott cleverly transcends faith, offering a story that proves compelling and thought-provoking even for an atheist like me.
It’s also a thoroughly modern tale – a conspiracy theory, of a kind. As Youssef (or Judas) finds himself interned in a prison cell, the uncompromising plot turns to waterboarding, evoked with a genuinely chilling matter-of-factness by the capable three-member cast. Gary Faulkner is sometimes mesmerising as Youssef, while Alix Cavanagh creates a complex, ambiguous character from the female interrogator-in-chief. Russell Shaw, as Youssef’s torturer, completes the trio – and while I found his portrayal just a touch too detached, he embodies the desensitising influence of violence explored in the final scene.
To my mind though, Marriott loses his way a little in the sermonising closing monologue, which tries too hard to wrap up the play’s messages with a summary of Christian theology. Perhaps he betrays a slight lack of confidence here, either in his own ability to convey the message or in his audience’s willingness to follow along. Whatever the reason, the conclusion’s heavy-handed – and the road-to-Damascus conversion of the once-heartless torturer was just too rushed to carry me along.
So I wish The Twelfth Disciple had maintained its subtlety until the very last moment, but there’s still plenty here to both celebrate and recommend. Whether it’s a fitting summary of the Christian faith is a question for others to answer. But as a straightforward piece of theatre – inspired by, but not beholden to, the testaments – it’s intriguing, surprising, and above all relevant; truly a parable for modern times.