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Satan’s view of the Passion

27 March 2015

Peter Graystone sees Justin Butcher's retelling of Jesus's life

Snide and athletic: Justin Butcher presents a powerful monologue as a reflection for Holy Week

Snide and athletic: Justin Butcher presents a powerful monologue as a reflection for Holy Week

FIRST things first. Justin Butcher's play The Devil's Passion is a serious and seriously fine piece of writing. It is a startlingly original presentation of Jesus's life; it crackles with great lines; and it is delivered by the author with a rugged commitment. It is hard to think of a monologue offering a more powerful reflection for Holy Week- or any week, for that matter.

We first encounter the narrator - suited, goateed, and devilishly handsome - taking questions at a press conference. He represents the forces of good (or maybe the forces of Western civilisation; the writing is too subtle to do more than hint) whose intention is to intervene in the Middle East to stop a radical ideology taking hold. But he is not what he seems. He is Satan, and his target is Jesus.

From that point on, the story of Jesus is told through Satan's eyes. He is there in the wilderness, tempting Jesus in the voice of a vulture, a cricket, and a whisper (Jack C. Arnold's soundscape is wonderfully evocative). He is there as Legion finds a name and a healer. He is behind Judas's shoulder, wheedling and winning him. But Jesus goes to all the "wrong" people - the ridiculed, the rejected, the turncoat - frustrating Satan's plan.

Sometimes, Butcher takes on the character of one of those whom Jesus meets, such as the high priest, or the woman who touched Jesus's cloak. And he interrupts the story with anti-sermons, such as a hymn to the virtue of suffering: "Nature abhors a monoculture; only corruption is fertile." It is a terrific performance - snide and athletic.

And, because the familiar incidents are seen from Satan's point of view, each one seems newly unsettling: the woman at the well matches Jesus for wit; he enters Jerusalem on a donkey, "ostentatiously humble as always"; Satan begins to foresee that he will fail when he realises that Jesus "is on a suicide mission".

Butcher has called on a director of award-winning solo shows, Guy Masterton, to give the piece its grip and energy. Sarah June Mills has set it in a cage hanging with monochrome images of Jesus from films, paintings, and icons. Bright-red fabrics are arresting at significant moments.

To be honest, with a running time of two hours, the monologue is a little overlong. The interval necessitated by the length allows the tension to drop. And a couple of sections in rhyming couplets seem to belong to a different play. But it seems churlish to mention this when the climax delivers such an emotional wallop: a shrunken, defeated Satan pleads with the dead Jesus to stay in Hell with him. (Spoiler alert: he is not here. He is risen!)

The tour of The Devil's Passion continues to Halesworth on 27 March; Romford on 28 March; Archway on 30 March; Piccadilly on 31 March and 1 April; and Holloway on 3 April (Good Friday). Tickets and details at justinbutcher.co.uk/devilspassion, or phone 0800 411 8881.

Video: The Devil's Passion

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