We may think we've heard the Easter story from every angle imaginable, but Christian playwright and actor Justin Butcher has added another to the list – a new, engaging play depicting the Passion from the Devil's point of view.
Butcher acknowledges the "vast weight of familiarity" attached to the story and seeks to harness its multiple cultural and theological interpretations in The Devil's Pasion. He incorporates numerous representations of both Christ and the Devil in his ambitious telling of the story, taking inspiration from (among others) CS Lewis, the medieval mystery plays and Dante's Inferno.
The one-man play, which premiered in London on Sunday, weaves together the Devil's plot to overthrow and undermine Jesus, with some of the boldest, most surprising acts of Jesus' life and ministry. In so doing, he uses and uses Martin Luther King's idea of Jesus as an "extremist for love" and represents him as "Christus Victor, the extremist for love, on a suicide mission."
Like a medieval mystery play, it concentrates on a battle between Christ and the Devil, but unlike the idea of the 'harrowing of hell' in the earlier conception, Butcher's play is set in the world – an unspecified fusion between first-century Jerusalem and the political concerns of our day.
Butcher says he wants to convey the idea that "Hell is wherever God is not, and wherever Satan's power, bondage, and imprisonment, victimhood disease, oppression violence... wherever these things hold sway.
"It's not a subterranean cavern, which is how the medieval mind understood it."
And so the The Devil's Passion, strangely enough, speaks of the ongoing work of God in the world, and not only Christ's overcoming death in hell. In the world of the play, the "principalities and powers" of evil are clearly present, but so too is the love of God.
We see Christ abolishing nine 'gates', taking cue from Dante's nine circles of hell. In Butcher's imagining, the gates – which include 'shame', 'mammon', 'fear' and of course 'death' – are the embodiment of the barriers that we construct in our lives and which keep God out; the "defences which we erect against the invasion of love, against God's presence fully realised in the world".
These are: "Our security, our addictions, our prosperity, our desire to control our lives and make them safe, our fear of 'the other'... "Wherever love breaks in, and breaks down these barriers, is a new conquest of the kingdom of God."
Working to defeat these walls in our lives, Butcher presents Jesus as someone constantly confounding expectations and breaking taboos. The play draws out key scenes from Jesus' life in which Christ subverts expectations – these include his conception, his temptation in the wilderness, welcoming the woman who poured perfume on his feet, dining with Zacchaeus, speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, and dying on the cross.
"Every time people thought they had got a handle on Jesus, he would go and confound them," Butcher says.
"As the kingdom is becoming a reality in the land that Jesus walked in, people start to flock to him and the good news is disseminated. [There is] the sense that this is an invasion into the realm controlled by the powers of darkness."
Butcher juggles an extraordinary number of characters, emotions, themes and ideas within the confines of what is essentially a two-hour monologue. But in that space he offers a fresh take on the powerful work of Christ, both once on the cross and the ongoing work of grace in our lives and our world.
The Devil's Passion is currently touring in churches around London and the South East.