May 2014 , The Barbican Theatre, London
This impressive adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, The Testament of Mary, takes the perspective of an altogether different mother of Christ. This Mary, bitter and resentful of the way her son has been deified in the aftermath of the crucifixion, reveals her grievous thoughts and stark attitude to the audience, framed by a visit of two evangelists seeking anecdotes to spin into propaganda. Deborah Warner returns to the Barbican with familiar collaborator Fiona Shaw (and Vulture) but the decision to invite audience on the stage in the soft opening is the most questionable element.
The stage is littered with various objects; props and a live vulture sit alongside a large plastic cube as a kind of micro-exhibition space amid the other curiosities. Audience are invited to explore the environment before being bustled back into their seats. Some reasons are proposed for this: firstly, this is ‘solo’ show rather than a 1-woman show because if you include the text, the set and the audience one is never truly alone: the act of sharing the space directly with the audience is meant to refresh the audience’s relationship to the theatre event. Secondly, the evening is designed to challenge preconceived notions of the story and even the theatrical experience, starting with the entrance and tableaux of a traditional Raphaelite Madonna, immediately quashed at the start of the show. The problem with this is that a) the freedom to take photos just amounts to a series of selfies with a famous Actress on a stage becoming the fashionable ‘must-do’ of the week and b) the crowded mass of people gawking at Shaw and the vulture creates a very messy mise-en-scène disrupting the otherwise excellent design (Tom Pye and Jennifer Tipton). This becomes even more shambolic when the staff need to hurry everyone back to their seats before they’re shut out for the evening, after being urged to take a prop candle off the stage only to have it immediately snatched back… it’s as if the production are being experimental, but it does nothing for the otherwise brilliant show.
Three major moments in Mary’s story are told to us: the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11:1-44,) the wedding at Cana and lastly the Crucifixion of Jesus. Mary reveals these episodes with skepticism and doubt, wandering around her home with nervous energy. There is no mistaking how angry she is about the her son and subsequent events of his cult status. The disciples, we learn at the beginning, are simply a group of misfits. Jesus is rather big-headed and Mary slow in realising the large crowds of people are there for her and her son. Two moments are particularly pointed at: firstly, the raising of Lazarus as a story. Jesus waits for his death to reveal God’s glory, but Mary claims he is under pressure from Lazarus’ sisters to raise him at the funeral. Furthermore, Lazarus is barely alive and more like a zombie. The next is the water being turned into wine, where Mary comically suggests that the wine was a trick because she was “amazed at the speed with which the six jars were brought in from the moment he (Jesus) asked for them… certainly the first one WAS filled with water but I don’t know about the others.” Tóibín creates some characters for the story that fit in nicely, such as Marcus, a cousin of Mary and a Guide of Mary and Martha at the Crucifixion. Marcus acts as a dramatic device and the audience hear as Mary does that she is being watched by sinister figures trying to disseminate the power base of Jesus’ group. He shows up throughout the story but in the last sighting he is in amongst the soldiers by the Cross. The Guide is essentially nothing until the very end of Mary’s account of the crucifixion where he had been totally indifferent, but upon hearing Mary and Martha recount an identical dream of Jesus coming alive (after running in terror from the scene away from the aforementioned sinister character) becomes the pinnacle in the creation of the new religion, as well as the reason Mary is now talking to these men in her house.
This adaptation was very good at registering every moment into a human experience. The description of the wedding could have been any wedding, while there are heavy implications as Mary tries to comprehend the raising of Lazarus, passed from hearsay within a crowd of disciples and grieving family. As a mother she is simply bored by the high-speaking ‘misfits’ in her home and how Jesus acts differently in private. There are often multiple connotations: when at the wedding she warns him to leave as they are being watched he says in a grand way (as he does anything with Glory) “woman, what have I to do with you?” which she interprets as arrogance/indifference (but could it be to protect her?) Lastly, the final words are the most haunting image spoken to her visitors, herself and her audience, having heard details of the execution and trauma experienced, “it WAS NOT WORTH it”. A far cry from the ascension line.
The design was well-implemented, with washes of vibrant contrasts and it was satisfying to watch the actress picking things up and moving furniture around in her varying states. The glass box containing the Madonna image flew away and a some-what more humble woman entered the space. A particularly striking feature was a silvery reflection of the bath on the back-drop, creating a dreamlike appearance with a spot casting her shadow into the reverie which doubled up as her imitating Christ while illustrating him high above her.
With so many positive elements in the show it’s a shame that the pre-show set up was so clunky. In an effort to experiment with audience perceptions of the theatre environment they inadvertently created a hub of gushing fans and camera phone albums at the risk of damaging a certain etiquette of theatre already suffering from those types of viewer that need to check their digital online presence during a show. Knowing that it was generally received very well I imagine those that didn’t endeavor to plod around the set could grasp that this was a brilliant play.
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