I thought I knew what to expect from The Devil’s Passion. I’d skimmed the words ‘harrowing of hell’ in the blurb. I walked in, saw the stage is set up to look like a modern warzone. Justin Butcher appeared at a podium in a suit and red tie, addressing a war council. He bears more than a faint resemblance to Tony Blair, and when he announced a sting operation on the extremist terrorist Jesus of Nazareth I thought I was in for a wacky romp through modern-day Palestine, possibly involving George W. Bush and the son of God wielding a machine gun.
A privilege to watch
Imagine my surprise when The Devil’s Passion turned out to be a lyrical, serious retelling of key events in the Gospel narrative. There is some initial confusion over the time period and tone, but when it finds its feet there’s a lot to like. There is a strong scholarship in the script which captures the bell tones of Biblical poetry and gives vivid life to the historical complexity of the characters. The audience feels the closeness of evil spirits in the imaginary of late century Jerusalem, the weight of oppressive orthodoxies, and the brutal realities of illness and the Roman occupation. The Devil himself is one of the main draws of the play: self-satisfied, wily, believing he knows everything there is to know about human nature. But The Devil’s Passion is about the dissolution of evil does in the face of radical forgiveness. And it is well told, so that the audience can forgive any dissonance which might arise from the setting.
In many respects the play isn’t that different to interpretations of the Gospel we’ve seen before. This said, I could not find fault with Justin Butcher’s performance. There are not many actors who are currently alive, let alone in the Fringe, who can play Jesus, and Judas, and the Devil in the same show and get away with it. And he does. It’s a rare thing for someone to be able to slip so easily into distinct, fully realised and three-dimensional characters, sometimes in the throes of difficult emotion. He portrays the exact point a curse lifts from a man’s eyes, brings Judas’ inner torment to life, even gives us Mary going through the immaculate conception, which for most other male actors should be silly. However, these moments and others are picked out and offered to the audience with clarity, precision and a mastery of the craft. He is a privilege to watch.
There is a reason the gospel is told again and again in media. There are subtle meanings, new voices, modern ideas to be read into it, old ideas which have new meaning, even if the structure stays the same. The Devil's Passion is a great example of why we shouldn’t be afraid of doing it.