Robert Tanitch reviews The Testament of Mary at Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Mary, the mother of Jesus, the most venerated female figure in Christianity, makes surprisingly few appearances in the gospels. She rarely speaks. Colm Toibin says he wanted to allow Mary to speak in his novella in the same way that artists of the Renaissance wanted to paint her.
His testament is not gospel, it is not theology, it is a work of secular fiction and takes place many years after the Crucifixion when Mary is living in Ephesus. His Mary, a very human mother, is filled with anger. His portrait will inevitably offend some believers.
Toibin’s Mary does not believe Jesus is the son of God. She thinks the disciples are misfits. She fled from the crucifixion before it was over. The Resurrection did not happen; it was a dream Mary and Martha shared.
Her final words are: “I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”
The novella has been turned into an 80-minute stage monologue. Fiona Shaw, no stranger to the solo performance, having performed T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days and Samuel Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is in full command of the text and acts it with extraordinary power.
Deborah Warner, her director, has given her a landscape and a soundscape fit for the size of the Barbican stage and auditorium. The performance has a cold, sharp clarity and the descriptions of the raising of Lazarus, the wedding feast at Cana and the horrors of nailing Jesus to the cross are particularly vivid.