The Testament of Mary, Barbican

Testament of Mary

I have already reviewed The Testament of Mary at length on this blog (you can read it here, and also listen me talking about the play on the radio here), which makes me reluctant to write another proper review. Instead, I want to consider what it’s like seeing the same production of a play more than once: what does the play lose or gain on second viewing; what is the eye and ear drawn to; what do you focus on now that you’re more familiar with the plot and the text?

My experience of seeing The Testament of Mary at the Barbican was different even before the play itself began, because on this occasion I decided to join most of the rest of the audience and walk around on the stage. Fiona Shaw sat just feet away, silently murmuring to herself, dressed in blue cloak and pink headscarf, calling to mind the Virgin Mary of Renaissance art. As we looked on, she removed the outer layers to reveal a plain grey dress beneath. It was oddly intimidating to watch, even though Mary was the object of fascination, and it definitely altered my reactions to the text and to the play as it unfolded: seeing Shaw shed the clothing that is so loaded with meaning and significance – religion, faith, Virginity, sainthood – was an incredibly powerful moment, and cleverly signifies that the Mary of this play is above all a simple, ordinary woman. Furthermore, one of the effects of inviting us on-stage to within such proximity to Mary is that it creates a certain kind of bond. It also makes us complicit in her situation. Following the crucifixion Mary has had to escape. She is in exile, under guard – though whether this is for her own protection and safety or whether it’s actually more a question of imprisonment we are never quite sure – and by walking across the stage, staring at Mary from every angle, even making eye contact with her, it is as though we are linked to the men who are constantly watching her, invading her space, entering her home, restricting her freedom. It’s an uncomfortable realisation.

At the Barbican I was lucky to have a ticket in the front row of the stalls, which meant that almost every expression on Fiona Shaw’s face was discernible. It was as though she was on the verge of tears from the very beginning (and the visible sense of relief when the play came to an end, as she was able to release all that tension, was remarkable to watch). She appeared to me very much as the mother who wants everyone to know and is desperate to tell her story. Shaw perfectly captured the delicate balance of a woman afraid to speak out about what happened but also one who wants to release some of the burden by talking about it, by sharing it.

Shaw has always been known as an intensely physical actress, and she and her director and long-time collaborator Deborah Warner have made their Mary an incredibly physical part. Perhaps because I was more familiar with the text, on seeing the play for the second time I did find some of the rushing around, the endless handling of props and the odd tantrum a little distracting. Shaw is an actress of such calibre that she needs little more than herself and a good script to create something magical. Nonetheless, sitting so close to the stage made certain moments all the more powerful: clearly visible was the devastating pain of her son’s public rejection (‘Woman, what have I do to with you?’); her horror and fear when she hears him called ‘the son of God’; the draining physical and emotional struggle she undergoes as she recounts and re-enacts the crucifixion is perhaps the most impressive of all.

On second viewing, the retelling of the raising of Lazarus from the dead was overlong, though Shaw’s Mary was just as sceptical and sarcastic as she had appeared when I saw the play in New York. It felt that, apart from this section, I was focussing much less on the story itself and more on Shaw’s interpretation of the text and also on the set and sound design. The latter consisted mostly of the occasional Eastern-sounding melody or of cawing birds (the latter particularly resonating with me when Mary complained of the slow passing of time). Sometimes the sounds from outside came across too strongly; it was most effective when not too intrusive.

Aside from the plethora of props littered about the stage, the backdrop was very simple: a screen that (with the help of clever lighting) gradually changed colour as the play progressed, sometimes black or white, or even yellow or blue. White changed to black when Mary’s recollections became more dangerous; yellow as they journeyed to Jerusalem; blue when she plunged into a well at the end of the play in some sort of ritual cleanse. This incredible illumination, while it could be seen as indicating a sense of time or place, in its continual shifts from cold to warm and back again, it underscored, for me, the complicated nature of the relationship between Mary and her son.

At the end there was a post-show talk with Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner. What received the most emphasis was the role of the audience, who Warner sees as guiding what’s allowed. Shaw described her feelings of claustrophobia during the ‘feeding frenzy’ when the audience is allowed to go on stage at the start, and of knowing what it must be like to be a statue. She also spoke of the fact that no silence is ever the same, and the power and effect that this has on her as she plays the same role over many consecutive performances. Having seen The Testament of Mary twice, I feel like I might understand what she means a little bit better.

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Categories: LGBT, Theatre

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