Thursday, 8 May 2014

Theatre review: The Testament of Mary

The Barbican plays host to a hit transfer from New York, as Fiona Shaw performs Colm Tóibín's monologue The Testament of Mary. Based on Tóibín's novella of the same name, it presents exactly what the title suggests, as the Virgin Mary gives her perspective on a few key stories from the New Testament: The miracles of healing the lame, resurrecting Lazarus and turning water into wine - although the first two of these are presented as hearsay and the third, the only one Mary was actually present for, didn't actually convince her anything supernatural had gone on. Her narration builds, of course, to Mary having to stand by and helplessly witness the crucifixion, but the idea that this holds any religious or political significance beyond a mother losing her son is an agenda she wants no part of.

I found The Testament of Mary completely devoid of anything to recommend it. Nothing about Tóibín's approach to the biblical stories feels new or inspired; certainly the central conceit of bringing the heart of the Christian mythos down to the human level of a grieving mother is not an original one. Even the most contentious paths followed - Jesus' disregard for his mother, and what exactly happened to Zombie Lazarus after his big day - have been better explored elsewhere.

Shaw's many collaborations with Deborah Warner have resulted in some of the most memorable theatre I've seen, but in recent years the director has had a tendency to build a production over a single big idea, to the detriment of everything else. Here it's the conceit of Mary striking poses that recreate religious art - indeed before the play starts stalls ticketholders are allowed to roam the stage as if at an art gallery, looking at Shaw posing inside a perspex box. Everything in the way the monologue's staged, from Shaw's movements around the stage to her inevitableSEVERE VADGE WARNING!are designed to bring her to these tableaux, meaning it's impossible to actually connect with anything she's saying.

One of the most unusual audience warnings I've seen for some time ("Note: The Testament of Mary contains a live vulture") leads to a damp squib as Shaw just wanders across the stage with the bird before the play actually starts. And her performance is disappointing, vocally flat with occasional bursts into angry action (flinging chairs and tables around) that Ian described as seeming like she was after an award - it's like an extended "Oscar clip." The Testament of Mary looks like important, event theatre, but has little to back it up.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín is booking until the 25th of May at the Barbican Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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