Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 22, 2013
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toíbín. Directed by Deborah Warner. Scenery designed by Tom Pye. Costume designed by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Jennifer Tipton. Original music and sound design by Mel Mercier. Cast: Fiona Shaw.
Whether you intellectually (or spiritually) agree with, or even merely tolerate, this interpretation of mankind's most famous mother, writer Colm Toíbín, director Deborah Warner, and actress Fiona Shaw strive nonstop to emotionally justify it in this fascinating but flat one-woman play. Toíbín, who originally conceived the work in 2011 and based his novella of the same title on it, has so successfully humanized his towering subject that he never needs to mention the name of her son — Jesus Christ — to arrive at a full and arresting understanding of what her experience must have been.
In short, Toíbín argues, it was that of a woman who could only watch her own flesh and blood slowly spin away from her, and transform into something different — and, yes, bigger — than she was able to recognize. Like any parent today whose child diverges from long-held and long-taught values by hanging out with the wrong people or experimenting with dangerous things, the Mary of this play sees her son as a pawn of more powerful forces and, ultimately, too weak to resist the temptations and the hype.
Making matters worse for her is that she can't buy into the stories that are emerging around him. When she hears about his resurrection of Lazarus, she can only wonder whether anyone actually saw the man die in the first place. She was at the wedding where her son turned water into wine, but admits that she can't verify that some of the jugs weren't filled with wine in the first place. And, in one of her recollections about her son's final days, she lays out a compelling case that the release of Barabbas might have been nothing more than a way to plant the seed of divinity before it was necessary to see the final tree.
It is ostensibly elements like these that have riled some in religious circles; and, in fact, protesters were reported outside the theater early in previews. (There were, for the record, none present the night I saw the show.) And one imagines that the last images and words of Mary that Toíbín gives us here, in which she openly reveals that she doesn't believe her trials were worth what she had to sacrifice, would only stoke the fires of any latent controversy.
But what's more important, from a theatrical perspective, is the impact on the viewer — and there the question is considerably murkier. Toíbín has unquestionably raised some intriguing issues, and offered up new takes on many longstanding ones, and that, combined with Shaw's natural magnetism, makes it easy to remain engaged throughout the play's 85-minute running time. What's less clear, however, is what's gained from this presentation of the material.
The monologue has a confessional air to it that one assumes would translate well to the theatre, which obliterates all obstacles between audience and performer. But rather than focus on Mary and allow us to burrow all the way down into the depths of her subconscious, Warner delivers a chilly, fussy staging on a barren-yet-cluttered set (designed Tom Pye and lit by Jennifer Tipton) that has Shaw filling water jugs, moving a ladder and dragging a desk, and, at the climax, disrobing and immersing herself in a pool of water.
The latter, at least, has thematic implications related to baptism that echo well with the rest of the play, and are related to Mary's constant efforts during the evening to scrub herself clean of the anguish and guilt that are caked on her. But like most of Warner's other inventions, it's a distraction that defuses and diffuses intimacy when we need it most. No scenes in The Testament of Mary are more effective than those in which Shaw stands or sits still and relates to us to us, unencumbered, in the way only a truly grief-stricken soul can.
Such moments are, of course, the best use of an actress of Shaw's gifts. Regardless, Shaw (who last appeared on Broadway ten years ago as the magnetic title character of Warner's misguided Medea) never invests Mary with anything less than absolute fire and intelligence, and is willing to wholeheartedly embrace anger, confusion, or regret whenever they occur. Surrounding her throughout is even an air of resentment, as though she rejects the notion of having to tell her story at all.
These qualities imbue Mary with a full range of colors that make for a dynamic guide through what is so often a dramatically inert enterprise. Shaw's ability to give us a fuller picture of Mary's social and personal station, which Warner otherwise does not pursue, is well aligned with Toíbín's own greatest accomplishment: wiping away 2,000 years of preconceptions so that we must confront Mary anew.
Shaw's resolutely modern performance, which is awash with (but never preoccupied with) irony and self-awareness more befitting 2013 than 33, is a far cry from classical portraits but, above all else, depicts a recognizable woman with legitimate feelings the most devout have probably never considered on quite this level. You just wish that both playwright and director would deepen the connection rather than trusting that its existence is enough.
The strongest hint you get of this production's possibilities, in fact, occurs before the show proper begins. Twenty minutes before curtain, Shaw arrives onstage and positions herself inside a giant glass box, clad in blue and red robes and assuming a virginal, feminine pose that could have been lifted straight out of a Renaissance painting. The audience is then invited onto the set (which houses, among other things, a live vulture chained to a table) and witness the woman in all her, yes, glory. Once the show begins, Shaw doffs the robes to reveal a modest, nondescript gray dress (by Ann Roth) that links her as much to our time as her own.
By bringing you literally face to face with the established vision of this woman before yanking it away, Warner and Shaw affix for you all of the stereotypes that they will spend the next hour and a half deconstructing. The one-two punch leaves you wondering what's real, what's fake, and what you believe about all of it. It's a powerful notion, and one that should be explored in richer and more interesting ways than it is in the stage version of The Testament of Mary.