THEATRE REVIEW: The Testament of Mary

7 May 2014

Barbican Theatre

playing until 25 May 2014


The Testament of Mary, Barbican Theatre
The Testament of Mary, Barbican Theatre

Fiona Shaw sits in a glass box on stage – with a live vulture for company – as the evening’s audience throng around her, eager for this opportunity to see a close-up of the star of the show before the actions begins. She is dressed in the recognisable robes of the Virgin Mary and is still, tranquil almost: the epitome of the Holy Mother as she is represented throughout the Catholic faith in churches, chapels and homes throughout the world.

Yet this is not the Mary we see for the following 80 mins. Colm Tóibín’s Mary is bitter, humorous, practical, doubtful, tortured and utterly absorbing. Shaw holds the audience captive throughout and is deeply moving, from her sour humour to her stark vulnerability as she strips away both her clothes and her emotional barriers, as she confesses how she fled the crucifixion scene and embarked on an escape peppered with memories that shame her.

This is of course a one-woman show, but it’s a busy stage: furniture, props and costumes are flung and torn asunder, only to be replaced, as Shaw’s Mary and Deborah Warner’s direction takes us through her emotional whirlwind in a nonetheless tightly-formed piece of theatre. This is Mary as a grieving mother: a mother who is distrustful of her son’s new ‘gang’; a mother who feels ignored when her son grows up and moves on to pastures new; a mother who has to face the loss of her only child; in short, far from a hallowed figure of faith, she is a recognisable and relatable character.

Shaw’s vitality and versatility is extraordinary as she dismantles and reassembles Tom Pye’s set. Tóibín’s character springs to life off the pages in a figure who is both passionate and ambivalent, determined and unsure, filled with vigour and simultaneously nearly broken by what she has been through. This may be a reinvention of a story that may or not may be accurate, depending on which viewpoint you take (although religious persuasion doesn’t actually matter here…) but there is a forceful truth that shines through this show – that of human love, suffering and the ability to survive the worst.

This is a wonderful, intelligent and utterly engrossing rendering of the age-old tale of loss, performed by surely one of the most versatile and talented actresses of our day.


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