The first symbol in a play ripe with them is the set; a series of rooms in glass and grey, it’s so liminal it could pass for a bus shelter. There’s a kitchenette, a mattress and a formica table bookended by utilitarian chairs made of steel and plastic. There is also a woman haunting this soulless space, alternately grief-stricken and galled, powerless in significant ways and yet determined to speak, even if just this once.
This is Mary, Mother of Christ, although neither her name nor her son’s is actually uttered. We’re in a decidedly contemporary setting but her language is arcane, as she talks of wells and temples and old, old gods. She offers us a testimony of her experience, and it is not the tale we’ve been led to believe. It’s far deeper and more troubling.
Irish author Colm Tóibín has mastered a kind of uncanny private intimacy in novels like Brooklyn and Nora Webster; it may seem odd for him to try his hand at something epic and monumental, but in fact the material suits him. Like his most recent novel House of Names, a retelling of the story of the house of Atreus, the character of Mary allows him to occupy a voice on the margins, touched by greatness but scarred as much as moved by it.
In the Bible, although the details are sketchy, Mary ascends to heaven not long after Jesus goes up; in this play, years have passed since her son’s death and the evangelists – but actually only Mark and an unnamed sidekick – have come to record her version of events. Only they want some changes, some simplifications and justifications, something that allows them to sell the branded message of Christ rather than lay claim to an actual history. This is where the title comes into play: a testament is far more than a statement tendered in court; it is what one gives to one’s heirs.
In the title role – the only one on stage despite the looming presence of Christ, of his followers, of Mary Magdalene – Pamela Rabe demonstrates precisely why she’s one of the most formidable actors in the country. Vast swathes of the running time are taken up with her nonchalantly throwing the poetry of the lines out the side of her mouth, as if the weight of her experience is best conveyed casually, as if she’d grown bored of the bullshit that’s calcified around her dead child. It would almost seem an offhand performance, but for the way she moves about the space, fiercely pushing herself into its corners; this is a Mary who has been witness to no miracle other than her ability to survive and to make her presence known.
And here is Tóibín’s real motive: a kind of respectful subversion but also a deep, intellectual challenging of the biblical message, which renders the women mute or submissive or merely loving. There is a tender savagery to the ways in which the play tackles the idea of Christian faith, of the foundations of belief that underpin what eventually became the Catholic Church as we know it. This is no Richard Dawkins dismissal of faith, but it’s unlikely to be studied in Catholic schools either.
Tóibín isn’t a natural playwright – while this started life as a dramatic monologue, he subsequently published it as a novella before it was re-adapted into the form we see here – and not all of his decisions are dramatically successful. There is an early retelling of the Lazarus myth that is so gloriously strange, so exquisitely creepy and so fully realised, that the followup story – the march to Calvary – comes off as a slight disappointment. Tóibín has so established the audience’s connection to Mary that her final confession fails to rend us quite as it should, and her pleading to ancient, pagan gods is intellectually fascinating without the emotional devastation we are surely meant to feel.
Given these serious structural problems, it’s something of a miracle that the play is so hypnotic and effective. Anne-Louise Sarks’s direction is highly poised, recalling Mary’s description of the gospel makers, so “ferocious and exact”. Marg Horwell’s set and costumes are almost cruel in their genius, playing with the traditional iconography of Mary while brutally undercutting it. Steve Toulmin’s sound design is otherworldly; Rabe’s voice, on a set so removed and isolated, feels shockingly close and private.
There is, these days, a bone deep reluctance in Australian society to even engage in the tenets of religious thought. We’ve become entrenched in our camps: strict secularism on the one hand and offended religiosity on the other. The result is that we’re all left swimming in the intellectual shallows of belief and counter-belief. This play, where Mary is reimagined as a mother who thinks she may have lost her son to religious extremism, is a salutary reminder that we all lose when our cultural differences become intractable. Theatre can’t get more relevant than that.