In his novel-turned-play, Colm Tóibín reimagines the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus from the point of view of his mother
You expect a sense of ceremony and formality. Flanked by museum-style velvet ropes, the set is cavernous; it looks like it’s been carved from a block of black marble. There’s an echo. Candles flicker and the Madonna (not that Madonna) appears. You expect religious solemnity.
Instead a woman alone, in contemporary neutral dress, starts to speak without preamble or politeness. She has something to say, and she will only say it once. She’s Mary, the mother of Jesus, and she is not quite the beatific figure you might know from stained-glass windows. There is absolutely no halo atop her head.
Mary (Sydney Theatre Award-winner Alison Whyte) lives in seclusion. Her life hasn't been safe for quite some time – a Jew among the Romans with a son who led a quiet revolution for his people – and ever since his Crucifixion she has been watched by a couple of guardians. They are not named in the script, but the Bible would suggest they're a couple of Apostles. It's clear they think her a burden now, this stubborn and stoic woman. They keep asking for her story; they want her memories of the day her son died so that they can be incorporated into gospel. They are looking for something florid and profound – they are looking for poetry.
Mary has no poetry left. She can’t speak easily about her son and is not sure she will ever be able to do so. “Something will break in me if I say his name,” she says. “I manage, but I do not manage easily and I do not manage without a considerable amount of care.”
Writer Colm Tóibín describes himself as a "collapsed Catholic" and his approach to The Testament of Mary is an extension of that identity; this ferocious one-woman show is a collapse of Catholic iconography from the untouchable into the bitter real.
Director Imara Savage has crafted her production around this collapse in close collaboration with designer Elizabeth Gadsby; its design is a little on the nose in its hyper-visual deconstruction of Mary’s image (it doesn’t stop at the velvet ropes, but the rest shouldn’t be spoiled) but their shared creation is confident and cohesive. With Emma Valente’s astonishing lights (that shift mood, memory and direction, elevating the script into something grand) and Max Lyandvert’s ominous soundscape, it becomes a fully-realised vision.
Tóibín’s Mary is a no-bullshit Mary – she calls the Apostles “misfits” and she has no patience for the hype and fervour that followed her son – and Whyte’s performance is similarly forthright. She must maintain a chronological narrative spattered with asides from the corners of her memory, sometimes disconnected, sometimes seeming irrelevant, but the key is that they all have great meaning for Mary and must be given their own weight. Whyte makes it all matter by maintaining a relentless sense of internal logic: every word drives her towards her son’s inevitable final moments, and she takes care with every word. This can make some of the detail boring or inconsequential to anyone not familiar with the New Testament or anyone impatient for actual action. This is not a script for action; this script is about reflection and correction. If it borders on dull in moments, well, it’s probably supposed to. Mary isn’t speaking for our entertainment (even if we’re looking to be entertained).
The script is technical challenge of a very high order: it’s entirely devoid of stage description or instruction and the wording is deliberate, with sentences phrased in difficult, dissonant groups. I saw the show twice over two nights; on the first night the script got away from Whyte and she stumbled over the words and then ‘went up’ completely (Australian theatre’s notoriously short rehearsal periods may be the culprit). This stymied her nuanced, slow-burn performance, though it was clear her instincts and internal journey were well-honed and fully realised. The following night, all the words were there, and her performance was dogged and assured, an unapologetic show of strength.
Whyte, Savage and Tóibín seem to be in agreement that Mary must be humanised and that we must be allowed to see the ugliness hidden under reverence. More broadly, this production insists that she be granted the chance to speak as an individual; and suggests that silence should not be treated as a passive or placid action. The Testament of Mary reminds us that myths are often built on people, and told by men; that the truth is often not quite what we’re taught. It reminds us that when we silence women, we are missing out on vital information and perspective.