5 May 2014
London

Colm Tóibín’s electrifying novella The Testament of Mary reimagines the Gospels from Mary’s point of view. The stage version, starring the equally as electrifying Irish actress Fiona Shaw, is on now in London. 

For Catholics, the Virgin Mary is a central part of the consciousness of day-to-day life. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary in our house – she was suspiciously Aryan looking, with pale skin, an aqualine nose and pink lipstick – and a print of Our Lady of Fatima hung on the wall of the bedroom I shared with my sister. The prayer Hail Mary is one of the first texts I remember reciting from memory. I was taught by Marist Brothers, a religious order named after and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In church, images of Mary were nearly as frequent as those of the crucified Christ. At school, lessons would stop at midday as we recited the Angelus to the pealing of the church bells. By mid-November, fights would break out among the girls as to who got to play Mary in the Christmas Nativity play. Easter holidays were marked with a family re-watching of Zeffirelli’s 1970s TV film Jesus of Nazareth, starring a teenaged Olivia Hussey as a refreshingly Jewish-looking Mary. As child sinners in the confessional box, we learned that there weren’t many crimes that couldn’t be wiped clean with a few Hail Marys offered to the Virgin. The mother of God was, it seemed, like a very helpful call centre operator who took your message while God and the other big boys of the Holy Trinity were busy. While Jesus might have been God’s main man, it was Mary who seemed to inspire the most steadfast devotion.

There’s been much written about Mary, most notably by Marina Warner in her excellent book Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. Warner’s opening paragraph provides a reflection on the ubiquity of Mary in the lives of Catholics: “Invocations to the Virgin Mary marked out the days of my childhood in bells: her feast days gave rhythm to the year; an eternal ideal of mortal beauty was fixed by the lineaments of her face, which gazed from every wall and niche.” Warner describes how Mary became a convenient way for early Christianity to absorb the popularity of pagan goddess-worship rituals – though unlike Kali or Athena, Mary became progressively more sexless until she was no longer a real woman. The winds of change brought by 1970s feminism have disrupted the Mary-cult: many feminists have identified it as the chief strategy by which the misogynist Catholic Church represses women and treats female sexuality as essentially sinful.

Even for the faithful, Mary is something of a conundrum. She is human, but also divine (and, according to the Pope, born without sin). She is an ordinary woman, but has been raised to the stature of a pagan goddess. She’s a mother, but because her free pass from the Pope, she managed to give birth without having to deal with the messiness of sex. She’s a model of saintly female behaviour – passive, accepting, suffering and resilient – of a kind that it seems impossible for most women to ever live up to.

It’s strange that for a figure so central to Catholic worship, Mary remains mostly a mystery. There are only a few references to her in the New Testament. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, she’s mentioned only in the Nativity narrative, and barely mentioned at all by Mark. It’s only John who places her at the Wedding in Cana and at the foot of the cross for Jesus’ crucifixion, from which we derive the striking visual image of the Pietà. There are, critically, few mentions of her speaking, and no records of her writing. Yet perhaps this is the point: by being silent, she’s been turned into an icon or a deity more easily, and held up by Church patriarchs as an example of female subservience.

Into this void, the Irish writer Colm Tóibín has taken a bold and fascinating plunge with his novella, The Testament of Mary, a compelling re-imagination of the life of Mary, told in her own voice. It’s a lean sinuous narrative, at just over 100 pages, written in simple, strikingly poetic language, and yet packs a huge emotional punch. I burned through it in an afternoon, thankful to be reading something so concise and emotionally direct after my fortnight of lumbering through The Luminaries (the winner of last year’s Booker Prize, in which Tóibín’s work was shortlisted).

Taking on religious history feels like a natural progression for Tóibín, whose work tends to focus on how religious faith shapes human existence, for good and for ill. In his novels The Story of the Night and The Blackwater Lightship, he reveals the ugly consequences of a life enforced by strict Catholic doctrine. His anguished gay protagonists do battle with domineering mothers, disapproving priests, the stigma of AIDS and the nagging voices of their own guilty consciences as they attempt to set themselves free – their suffering presumably drawn from Tóibín’s own struggles with his sexuality.

The narrative of resistence and escape from a religious upbringing is a common theme in literature written by gay men, but Tóibín distinguishes himself by going deeper and acknowledging the enduring attractions of his faith. In The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe, a compelling mix of travel writing and memoir, he reports admiringly about the strength and power of Catholicism across Europe, while simultaneously describing painful group therapy sessions in which he tries to come to terms with feelings of guilt and shame about his sexuality. The appeal of his work lies in his ability to acknowledge that Catholicism is as much a part of the fabric of his life as his homosexuality, and that there are no easy solutions to resolve the conflicts between the two. Tóibín is left, like many of his fictional characters, feeling ambivalent about his faith, sorting through the pieces and trying to make sense of them.

This ambivalence – the need to stay both within a system of thought while simultaneously challenging it – goes to the heart of The Testament of Mary. Tóibín follows the Gospel of John diligently, though it’s played with an emotional immediacy and down-to-earth savagery not normally present in depictions of the story. From the first line, we’re made aware that Mary is under a form of survelliance or house arrest. Unnamed men (presumably the disciples) visit her to try and coerce a story out of her about Jesus’ death and resurrection: “They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs… to have noticed that I remember everything,” she narrates. “Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.” But it’s the reader, not the men, who is able to access her private thoughts. Slowly, Mary relates the truth as she remembers it, rather than the version being demanded of her. It’s clear that she is either near death or fears an imminent assassination – her speech abounds with images of animals being hunted – which lends urgency to her story. “I do not seek relief, merely solitude and some grim satisfaction which comes from the certainty that I will not say anything that is not true,” she says, suggesting that this is her last testament.

Mary’s story is strange and sad and deeply moving, fired through with the slow-burning anger of the oppressed. Mary is angry at everyone: her son, whose death pains her so much that she can’t speak his name; at his “misfit” disciples who she calls blames for endangering his life; at the sadism of his executors; and at her visitors who rewrite her story and ignore her own truth. Through her grief-stricken, quietly cynical gaze, the Passion story plays out very differently. The miracle at the Wedding of Cana becomes a tense, terrifying scene, fraught with danger, as Mary realises she and Jesus are being watched by state officials. Lazarus’ raising from the dead plays like a failed experiment, as she describes the resurrected Lazarus caught like a ghost between life and death. Tóibín’s Mary is not a wide-eyed disciple but a flesh-and-blood woman, filled with the fears and contradictions of ordinary people.

With extraordinary grace and sleight-of-hand, Tóibín takes aim at the heart of the Marian cult, by removing Mary from one of her most celebrated moments. Fearful that she and her cousin Martha will be killed and unable to watch her son’s suffering any more, Mary flees the scene of the crucifixion before Jesus dies, and goes into hiding. That means no picturesque weeping of maternal tears at the Deposition from the Cross, and no cradling her dead son in her arms in a Pietà. The resurrection of Jesus happens as a dream that she and Martha share, rather than something they witness in their waking life. As Mary’s testament ends, we hear how her dream is told and retold by the disciples as fact, with other embellishments that sound familiar to modern Catholics. “He began to explain to me what had happened to me at my son’s conception…. I barely listened. I had other things to do. I knew what happened.”

Tóibín leaves open the possibility that the resurrection happened, but allows Mary the right to dissent. “When you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it.” It’s an extraordinary line, that challenges the sanctity of the Gospels, but which resonates with emotional truth. Surely any grieving parent who has lost their child to an unsatisfactory higher cause – war, politics, religious feuding – would think the same. While the tone may not be on-message with the Vatican’s stance on the Virgin Mary, Tóibín’s work stands as a remarkably empathetic and nuanced meditation on the nature of suffering.

This weekend, I was fortunate enough to be able to see the stage version of The Testament of Mary, performed by the mighty Irish actress Fiona Shaw and directed by Shaw’s ex-partner and frequent collaborator Deborah Warner. The poster for the production (which appears at the start of this blog) has been turning heads in London for weeks – a stark, desaturated image of a woman whose mouth is muzzled by a crown of thorns. It’s a neat encapsulation of Tóibín’s theme about the suppression of Mary’s true voice, and, like the novel, forces us to look at familiar religious iconography (Jesus’ crown of thorns) in a new way.

The stage production is similarly intent on presenting and deconstructing visual icons of the Mary-cult. As we entered the auditorium, Fiona Shaw was seated inside a glass cubicle, dressed in “traditional” Virgin Mary garb (a headscarf, the royal blue robe), murmuring to herself while votive candles burned around her. Audience members were invited onto the stage to inspect the set. No one prayed, but younger people made their own modern-day act of homage by taking selfies in front of Shaw’s live action shrine. The glass case raised, Shaw rose to her feet, took off the robes and silently offered the candles to audience members, who scuttled obediently off the stage. At last, the real woman emerges from behind the icon. Throughout the performance, Shaw flirts with Christian iconography – constructing a cross from planks of wood and a ladder and lying down on it with her arms outstretched, clutching a blanket in a Pietà pose – only to toss them aside. While these moments feel a bit obvious, they’re an effective visual correlative for a character who is trapped within obsolete systems of meaning, and searching impatiently for something that will fit.

As Mary, Shaw was never less than compelling. She’s an extraordinary performer – tall, angular, energetic, funny and ferocious, she’s one of a very few number of actresses with the necessary charisma and fearlessness to take on an iconic role like Mary. Her performance showed an intention to give full and angry voice to the troubling implications of Tóibín’s text, and she digs deep to find the character’s pain and suffering.

And yet, something didn’t quite work. Too often, the performance felt like Shaw was telegraphing her emotions rather than simply embodying them. Her take-no-prisoners performance style – so thrilling in roles like Medea, Elektra, Mother Courage and Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner – often felt misplaced. Shaw’s version of Mary is as a tiger mother – edgy, witty, cynical and confrontational – and she doesn’t so much play the text as wrestle it to the ground. Though the performance was exciting to watch, it often felt out of sorts with the quietly suffering and submissive Mary of Tóibín’s text. Shaw is like a jittery prize fighter, moving uneasily around the stage, jabbing and ducking and never sure whether to attack the audience or woo them into submission. In many ways, she reminded me more of The Wandering Jew, the Roman centurion who struck Christ in the face and was condemned to walk the earth telling his story until The Second Coming.

This over-worked quality of Shaw’s performance was also evident in the non-naturalistic set, a Waiting for Godot-esque assortment of blasted tree stumps, debris, an empty cage and a live vulture, with lighting in lurid shades of yellow and electric blue. Like much of Shaw’s stage business, it was overly busy. It’s as if Warner and Shaw worried that a 90 minute monologue wouldn’t work on its own and needed a stagey visual correlative. Though I’m seldom a fan of theatrical minimalism, and love the jarring qualities of a surrealist set, it felt as though Testament could be more effective if it did less. While watching Testament, I was reminded of Vanessa Redgrave’s performance in the one-woman show she did of Joan Didion’s grief memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. While that production seemed a bit anaemic at times, it had the advantage of throwing the focus onto Redgrave, who effortlessly held the stage. By comparison, Warner’s set, while beautiful, often felt like an unnecessary distraction. Even the moment when Shaw takes off all her clothes and plunges into a sub-stage pool of water – as a ritual act of cleansing? – felt gimmicky rather than fully incorporated into the show.

Testament is a bold, serious-minded production, intent of purpose and unafraid of being controversial. But despite classy production values and a charismatic lead performer, Testament didn’t move me in the way I was expecting to be moved. Tóibín’s text, artfully pruned down for the stage show, seems to be missing an emotional seam – or perhaps it was the performance and direction, which focused on the anger in Mary’s testimony to the detriment of her vulnerability. Much as I love Shaw, it would be interesting to see it performed by another actress who doesn’t have quite so much of Shaw’s feral intensity. Hopefully this production will be the first in a long-overdue reassessments of Mary’s significance for our culture. God knows she needs a makeover, fast.

 

 

 

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