Something in me will break if I say his name.
Mary cannot sleep. She paces up and down the stage. She fills earthenware urns with water. She guts fish. She drinks alcohol straight from the bottle. She rolls cigarettes, but never smokes them. She also talks the whole time, telling us the story of her son’s life without ever once uttering his name, pouring out her frustration, her anger, her guilt, her pain, her loneliness, her despair. Her love. Whatever image of Mary we might bring with us to this play – iconic, idealised, virginal, silent, obedient – and through whatever societal or religious prism we might have viewed her up to this point, she was after all a mother. In this brave and electrifying monologue, which gives a powerful and original voice to a woman whom history has largely rendered mute, it is on her role as mother that Irish novelist and playwright Colm Tóibín concentrates.
Not content with the controversy created merely by giving her a voice at all, Tóibín’s Mary is also bold and opinionated: put more than two men together, she says, and you get ‘foolishness and cruelty’. Her son’s disciples were ‘a group of misfits’ whose earnestness bored her, and she admits that she couldn’t bear to be around her son when his friends were present. Yet now she bitterly regrets that she did nothing and berates herself (‘I should have paid more attention to who visited’); the burden of guilt weighing on her is palpable.
Like many mothers Mary remembers being shocked by her son’s actions, though in her case it was the ‘high-flown talk of power and miracles’ surrounding him that really worried her. Tóibín skilfully uses the miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead to illustrate the troubling nature of these miracles (Mary describes her son’s actions as ‘mocking the very way things are done in the world’) while at the same time refraining from challenging that they took place. Parents and children often grow apart (the Bible does hint that this was the case between Mary and Jesus), and Lazarus’ story also provides Tóibín with an opportunity to illustrate this, as Mary despairs that Jesus has become ‘unfamiliar’, ‘formal’ and ‘grand’. She painfully confides to us that, when she tried to speak to him, to warn him about the dangerous consequences of his behaviour, his disdainful response was ‘Woman, what have I to do with you?’
Tóibín’s Mary is profoundly human; she is an old woman who lives alone – it’s heartbreaking to hear her admit that she always leaves one chair empty, the one that belonged to her beloved, deceased husband – and a mother who had a difficult relationship with her son and must now live with the consequences. It is a potent, brazen portrayal, based on textual truth and yet brilliant in its daring and bold in the questions it asks and forces us to ask in return.
Fiona Shaw is outstanding as Mary. She moves effortlessly between raw and visceral, sanguine and practical, mocking and humorous (she does great impressions of Miriam and Mary Magdalene). Shaw gives Tóibín’s words such depth and power, whether uttered quietly (‘You don’t manage without a considerable amount of care’, is how she matter-of-factly describes living from one day to the next), or hurled up to the heavens in an agonised cry (‘I am not one of his followers!’, she screams, brilliantly capturing the tension between Mary’s need to adhere to her own beliefs and her frustration that that meant a wedge was driven between her and her son). Early on she tells us that memory fills her body, and so enthralling is Shaw over the next ninety minutes, pouring forth a series of terrible images and recollections, that you fully believe these memories have taken hold of her.
We all know the circumstances of Jesus’ death, yet Tóibín encourages us to look at the crucifixion anew, from Mary’s point of view, and it is a devastating scene. Unlike Mary Magdalene, she cannot see what happened as ‘a new beginning’, and the savage, raw pain that Shaw conjures up when she cries out that she would have done anything not to witness her son’s suffering is brutal to behold. But there is a further twist, for Tóibín’s Mary does not stay to watch her son die. ‘How could I have watched?’ she begs us to understand. She wouldn’t have been able to be there without moving or making a sound, without calling out his name, and in doing so would have endangered herself. She admits to us that she left her only son to die alone, and as Shaw lets this terrible admission past her lips she gasps and struggles for breath; having given these dire words life she is broken by them.
Deborah Warner directs with real verve, and is rewarded with another characteristically intense performance, both physically and emotionally, from Shaw. The work put into the choreography is evident, as is the excellent choice of props, particularly a ladder, a coil of barbed wire and a tarpaulin, which take on whole new layers of meaning. Set designer Tom Pye and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton manage to put simple black cloth to powerful use.
The Testament of Mary is a stunning piece of writing, and Tóibín’s lyrical, moving prose is brilliantly brought to life by Shaw and Warner. Tóibín courageously refuses to offer us the enduring, patient Mary of legend, and cruelly snatches away any possibility of consolation. Instead his confessional play breathes new life into the Mary we know from the Bible, the Pietà, the ubiquitous statues, and his sceptical, grief-stricken, guilt-ridden and lonely woman rings powerfully true, for ultimately it is the story of a mother’s pain and eternal love for her son.