There are shows that quite literally take my breath away. I will find myself unable to express my thoughts and feelings by voice until after I've been silent; letting them slowly drip down into my soul. This was true after The Scottsboro Boys. Also after The Normal Heart. Each time, my companion and I were mute as we made our way back into the world. And then came the flurry of conversation that gave substance to the way the show had touched us.
And so, after cheering wildly at Fiona Shaw's bows, I was silent at the end of The Testament of Mary. So much sheer, raw, naked emotion from the playwright, as brought to the stage by this fearless actor; and from the audience in return. Shaw's and Colm Toibin's Mary is bitter, grief-stricken, traumatized and a bit mad. Well why shouldn't she be, after witnessing her son's descent onto a dangerous path that she didn't understand; one that ended in the gruesome spectacle of his crucifixion? This Mary is not on board with the divinity of how her son came into the world, or how he left. She rails against the version of the story being told by the disciples, who she blames in part for the end. Regardless of your religious or spiritual beliefs, this is a unique and, I found, fascinating perspective on a pivotal story in Christian, especially Catholic, dogma. It does not need to shake you from the security of your belief; in fact it could push you to an even greater certainty of why Mary's story is divine.
The audience was invited to explore the stage pre-show. A plexiglass cube sat stage right, containing a seat, some figurines, votive candles, a faucet and an opaque cover over what appeared to be a pool of water. Once the stage was filled with milling audience members, Fiona Shaw strode through the crowd, entered the cube from the back, seated herself inside in the iconic garb of the Mary we see in art throughout the ages. She held lilies in her right arm, forming a suggestion of a pieta (Mary holding the body of the crucified Jesus in her lap), and an apple in her left. Her lips moved in silent speech with her eyes closed at first, and then opened with a slight hint of a smile, but with tears rolling down her cheek. She stared straight ahead, as people quietly filed around the cube; stopping to take in the sight of this living sculpture.
The stage was otherwise filled with a confounding assortment of objects in various tableaux. To the left is the scene looking down beneath the stage through a glass window in the floor. A ladder descending to a brilliant blue pool and surrounded by clay pots and artifacts.
Some of the objects strewn about were later used in the storytelling, such as the barbed wire and the ladder, both representing aspects to the crucifixion itself (cross, crown of thorns). Others like the live vulture (which did not stay onstage during the play), and empty birdcage (which did), served only as foreshadowing. The gigantic, solid tree trunk, suspended from the rafters, gently moved as people reached to touch it. It was contrasted later in the show with a delicate, golden, shimmering tree with full leaves, that rises from the pool of water onstage. This is the pool into which Mary has plunged just before, and then emerged, drenched but seemingly calmer and with a bit more peace. The tree of life indeed.
This is first and foremost a piece of theatrical storytelling of the highest order....a single performer on stage for ninety minutes, moving about the space and commanding our attention primarily with her words. The modern day symbolism of a tape recorder, handwritten notes, pencil (not the more permanent ink) make us think about how stories are told and passed down. We might be wise to question how the storytellers come to tell us the version we hear. What influences were being brought to bear?
We are told the so familiar stories of Lazarus being brought back to life, and the wedding feast at Cana. But from this Mary, they are laid bare to cynicism. However, we must ask what is driving the despair and dark rage in this version. And, for me, Fiona Shaw's brilliance is in the electric undercurrent of terror, grief and confusion that was always palpable; and which elicited sympathy, and even gentle laughter of recognition from the audience.
Some of the actions in which Shaw engaged-holding an unlit cigarette for much of the time; dashing over to sit in a folding chair, back to the audience, agitatedly drumming her feet and making marks on her wrists went unexplained in the narrative, and perhaps at all. I interpreted these things as pointing to the element of madness in the narrator.
As Mary tells us how she is being encouraged, nay forced?, to tell a version of the events that will serve the narrative of her son's death as redemption for the world. "They tell me," she says, that this version will forever "change the world." "Really?," she asks both the unseen handlers, and the audience, "all of it?" And then, finally, comes the pronouncement that is the most human, and devastating, of all..."if that's so....it. was. not. worth. it."