The Testament of Mary at the Barbican
Colm Toibin’s own adaptation of his Man Booker Prize-nominated novel The Testament of Mary is fascinating and unorthodox. Both the account of a mother’s bitter grief over the loss of her son and the story of the Virgin Mary herself, the production gives a voice to woman who has long been silent in biblical history.
Before the show begins the audience is allowed to wander around the stage where actress Fiona Shaw sits looking very much like the virtuous and beatific Virgin we recognise from biblical imagery. As soon as the show begins however, this image is dismantled and replaced by a much more real and unkempt woman who speaks with animosity and wry humour.
Deborah Warner presents us with this powerful contrast between saint and ordinary woman in order to challenge our perception of Mary and to force us to consider a different reality for a woman who was forced to watch her son die. From a vivid of story of rabbits being tortured by large birds to the looming cross that is behind Shaw for the entirety of the show, Warner makes it hard for us to forget the brutal reality of Mary’s situation.
One detail that does cause our focus to slip however is the fussiness of the stage direction in the first 30 minutes. Shaw constantly moves furniture from one place to another and takes clothes off, even stripping off completely at one point. Her constant movement of props is unnecessary and only serves to distract our attention from the power of Toibin’s script.
Despite the stage direction, Shaw’s performance is wrought with a wonderful mix of tension, drama and humour. She plays the part so engagingly that the audience barely notices that they are watching a monologue and certainly never want for another character. Using Toibin’s lyrical and stunning script, Shaw works hard on stage, laying bare a story of acute pain and anguish. She shows us a Mary who is funny, angry, flawed and human. By giving a voice to woman who, until now, has been seen and not heard, Shaw endeavours to make us see the mother instead of the saint, and judging by the reaction of the audience, she succeeds.
Photo: Hugo Glendinning
The Testament of Mary is at the Barbican Theatre until 24th May 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch Fiona Shaw, Deborah Warner and Colm Toibin talk about the production here: