“Semi-fictional heretical retellings of the Passion” is not a theatrical trend that’s easily spotted, but after last year’s Master and Margarita dramatically re-told the story of Jesus’ last hours (amongst other things), the Easter story has returned to the cavernous Barbican theatre in a searingly intense adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novella The Testament of Mary. In a 100-minute monologue as Mary, Fiona Shaw strips bare (at one point literally) the tradition of Marian adulation, in a devastatingly raw and personal account of a mother’s grief.
The play opens, though, with a more conventional view of the Mother of God. The audience are allowed up on stage to mill around Tom Pye’s meticulously detailed set and gawp at Shaw, encased in a Perspex box littered with candles and devotions, the folds of her pastel robes carefully arranged. This is the Mary of 2014, of Medjugorje and Lourdes, a postcard-ready Raphaelite Madonna. But the stage is full of the signs of a a harsher reality – iron nails, twists of barbed wire, a monolithic cruciform branch, and a (surprisingly affable) live vulture. Sheafs of paper lie haphazardly about – they are gospel passages full of scribbled annotations and corrections, a visual pun on the “gospel truth” that also reveals the play’s conceit: Mary is reporting her version of events to a pair of unnamed evangelists a number of years after the crucifixion. As the glass box lifts and the audience disperse back to their seats, it is a worldly, embittered Mary that wanders the stage, scrubbing pots ad rearranging furniture as she tells her tale. Fiona Shaw is magnificent, holding forth with black-as-hell humour on how Jesus and his rag-tag gang “roamed the countryside in search of want and affliction”. Shaw’s Irish lilt not only gives an irreverent, human warmth to the caustic humour (“They said ‘Your son will save the world’. ‘All of it?!’ I asked.”), but also gives a ring of contemporary authenticity to the religiopolitical volatility of Biblical Judea.
However, her scepticism as she gives us her perspective of the resurrection of Lazarus and the wedding at Cana is never allowed to undermine the mysticism of the events described. When she impersonates Jesus as one of a number of other characters she conjures up (including a masterfully timeless chain-smoking, gossiping acolyte), she merely flings a cloth over her left arm and raises her right hand in the two-fingered “peace” sign of benediction. But, in doing so, she manages to distil the gravitas and preternatural power of Christ into every line she delivers.
As the narrative creeps inevitably closer to its brutal conclusion, it becomes clear that Shaw’s Mary is ravaged by grief, obsessively washing her hands (at one point stripping naked and frantically scrubbing herself as if to dislodge her torturous memories) and stamping her feet in a post-traumatic-stress tic. Deborah Warner deals with the crucifixion itself with a powerful physicality that complements Tóibín’s unflinching language.
Ultimately, there is no redemption or salvation for Mary, left behind with only her anguish – despite the lofty prophesying of the visiting evangelists, the play’s conclusion is an utterly bleak cry of agony from a bereaved mother: “When you say that he redeemed the world, I will say it was not worth it. It was not worth it”. A stark, bitter, and rawly intimate denouement to a powerful production.