Justin Butcher's Devil's Passion brings thought and, well, passion, to political debate and church life alike.
It's the evening of Good Friday as I write this and, all over the country, churches are relaxing after a hard day's trying to engage outsiders with the central story in our calendar. Walks of witness (like marches, but less aggressive and with more tea after), public passion plays, puns on outdoor noticeboards and special services for seekers - they've all been happening. I'm sure they all have their merits, but I had no desire to go, and I'm a believer. Or perhaps it's because I'm a believer. I've heard this story a million times. I don't need to sacrifice a perfectly good Friday to hear it (I know, I know).
Justin Butcher's Devil's Passion is a welcome antidote to the dull and done to death, a light sandblasting for jaded souls. It's also a timely piece, casting Jesus in the role of extremist preacher, whose dangerous ideas have the potential to cause untold instability in the Middle East and here at home. You know: the kind of man Theresa May warned you about. Again and again.
Butcher's one man play opens at something like a security briefing for the press. His narrator, who is only looking out for our best interests as he tries to apprehend the dangerous extremist, is Satan. And while a passion play from the Devil's perspective may naturally evoke a gleefully heretical flavour, Butcher's beautifully-written piece is as reverent as such a post-Screwtape exercise can be while still entertaining.
Butcher does take more liberties with Scripture, perhaps, than an old-school evangelical or nervous traditionalist might like, but his intention is not to disrupt the canon or undermine the audience's view of biblical authority. When Butcher's Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the rich man specifically to Zaccheus the tax collector, when he says "be still" not to the wind and waves but a tempest in a possessed man's mind, it draws attention to the wonderful echoes, themes and symmetries in Scripture, rather than making you doubt it. When Jesus in the wilderness hears Ezekiel's rushing wind and Satan's mocking 'still small voice', it is pleased chuckles or knowing nods, rather than worried frowns and disapproving tuts that will be the likely responses of Bible-loving Christians.
Certainly, he suggests the man whose tormenting spirits are driven into pigs might be schizophrenic and that the biggest miracle in feeding the multitude was convincing people to share - but these are hardly faith-rocking thoughts for a contemporary British Christian. And when Satan agonises over his own blindness to Jesus' 'suicidal' plan to save mankind at the Last Supper, it is the Angel of Death of Exodus that is most invoked. The traditional Passover image playing as a background to Butcher's ingenious take on Satan's last-ditch effort to avoid a hell-shaking disaster (sending Pilate's wife a warning dream, making Pilate himself and Herod uncharacteristically squeamish and merciful), makes that a particularly rich climax to a play that doesn't lack for richness.
Butcher's performance is, at times, a little overblown, a little overwrought, but, then, how does one play Satan and a Tory fear-merchant rolled into one if not bombastic and pompous? Does Milton's Satan come across as any different?
Simple lighting, mostly effective sound design (at times quite frightening when paired with Butchers more intense outbursts) and minimalist props (a red cloth appearing a few times, most effectively in illustrating the practical indignities facing the woman with the issue of blood who touches the hem of Jesus' garment) and an impressively versatile performance all play their part, but it is Butcher's writing that shines here. Quite beautiful rhyming couplets and knowing asides keep the pacing fresh and fast, while witty turns of phrase ("Your young anarchist friend," the High Priest calls Jesus when he tempts Judas) raise more smiles than most passion plays manage - though I guess that's not saying a lot.
Perhaps the most poignant moment is when Butcher has Satan tempt Jesus on the cross to give it up and pack it in by showing him how generations of Christians will sanitise his sacrifice, allowing gold and silversmiths to smooth his suffering into decorative mannequins for church walls and necklaces. When I watched it, these lines were performed under the beautiful, illuminated stained glass window of St James's Church, Piccadilly, which is indeed very pretty.
The feeling you are left with at the end of the play is not warm and fuzzy or pretty and comfortable. Though perhaps it is comforting. Personally, I left remembering why I love Jesus, why I find his story and the story of the broader Bible so compelling - and, dare I say it, wanting to engage deeper with my faith.
I'm not sure that was Butcher's hope or if he simply wanted to make us think more deeply of Christ's relevance to contemporary issues, but I've been to a lot of Easter events that did have that hope, and very few of them achieved it like this play.