The Theatreguide.London Review
Testament of Mary
Barbican Theatre May 2014
Fiona Shaw's brilliance as an actress lies largely in her ability to anchor her characters in a solid domestic reality while still communicating their tragic depth and power.
Directed by her long-time artistic partner Deborah Warner, she was unparalleled as Medea, Hedda, Mother Courage and even Richard II, and now she applies her talents to the mother of Jesus, as imagined by Colm Tóibín.
The production signals its intent to deconstruct the received image of Mary by opening with audience members invited to mill about onstage, gawking at Shaw in traditional blue shawl and pose, literally under glass in an exhibit case.
Viewing hours over and the stage cleared, she comes out of the box, doffs the shawl and, in basic black, begins her talk. We are some time after the Crucifixion and she is arguing with an unseen pair of disciples trying to get her to say things they can incorporate into the new religion they're shaping.
But Mary will have nothing to do with myth-making and insists on giving her version of events. Her son may have been a healer of sorts, though she has doubts about some of the reputed miracles, but mainly he was an ordinary man whose propensity toward egotism and taking himself too seriously was encouraged by the band of 'misfits' he somehow attracted.
There was nothing at all noble, and everything horrible, about his death, and she herself was something less than the beatified figure the mythmakers want to create.
Shaw's Mary is as down-to-earth as she could be, bog Irish (as are many of the others she voices) with no patience for blarney. What was, was, and she's not going to let anyone pretend it was otherwise.
But at the same time she speaks with a mother's love and a mother's grief, and makes the story of a son's death as moving and meaningful as any religious miracle.
Much of the power that Warner and Shaw bring to the text comes from the solid reality they create on a largely bare stage. Mary goes about various domestic tasks as she talks, quietly establishing that real life can't stop even for a new religion, and her accounts of others are instantly recognisable and sometimes comic characterisations. If Mary is proudly peasant stock, her cousin Miriam is lace curtain Irish and Margaret's sister Mary an airheaded hippie.
The strength of Colm Tóibín's text lies in the opportunities it provides for director and actress to bring it so fully alive. Its weakness lies in a certain predictability – once Mary's contrarian position is established, there are few surprises, and Fiona Shaw has to work hard to keep Mary's re-interpretation of each new episode from seeming just more of the same.
Fiona Shaw has no difficulty owning the large Barbican stage and holding a large audience, and some will find Mel Mercier's New Age-ish music and Tom Pye's shape-changing backdrop not especially distracting. But I can't help feeling this is at heart a very intimate piece.
Though it would be commercially unviable, The Testament Of Mary may really want to be seen in a small, plain studio space.
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