Long-time collaborators Fiona Shaw and director Deborah Warner are brought together once again in Colm Tóibín’s stage-adaptation of his Booker prize-nominated novella, The Testament of Mary. First opened on Broadway last year, the play now graces the stage at the Barbican.
Before it begins, the audience are invited to walk onto and discover the vast stage and its props, in the middle of which sits a beatific Fiona Shaw, encased in a glass case while a live vulture quietly unfurls its wings nearby. From our vantage point in the audience, the crowds conjure up a Biblical rabble — albeit a Biblical rabble with iPhones — excitedly milling around to see what the fuss is about.
Once the audience are settled in their seats, a rather different scene emerges; Mary, at home, wearing domestic rags and cleaning pots. She is portrayed as a no-nonsense woman, scoffing at the fuss that is made over her son and forever wary of the rumours that circulate around him. The monologue leads her through these rumours to the crucifixion, a terrible few minutes that proves the potency and the power of words, and which brings about a confession hitherto ‘unknown’. This is certainly no play for those of the Christian faith, unless you have a penchant for blasphemous theatre.
The Testament of Mary is raw and human; the grandeur that’s usually associated with the biblical Virgin Mary is shed, and instead we see her pottering about, distraught and even at one point strip to the bone. Fiona Shaw commands the stage with a quiet confidence, taking her time to lay out her words and invite attention. It may be a retelling of one of the most famous stories on earth, but through Tóibín’s new voice we learn it anew, and proves the power of storytelling to be very much alive.