It felt fitting to watch the new Broadway production of Colm Tóibín’s Testament of Mary during Holy Week recently. Unfortunately I was rather disappointed in the show. I’m also a bit conflicted about this review since it was a preview performance and, technically, they’re meant to be critic-free. But then, I’m not a paid, professional critic, so, keeping in mind that the show may change by the time it officially opens, here goes:
As I said in my earlier post about Tóibín’s book, I was very excited to see Fiona Shaw in this production, directed by her frequent collaborator Deborah Warner. Surprisingly, my chief impression of the show was that Shaw was forcing many emotional notes. I feel like she was hampered by the lack of a cohesive physical activity onstage – an activity that, as any grad student in acting can tell you, would free her up emotionally. When I read the book, I often had an image of Mary cleaning her little house or fixing a meal for herself as she speaks to the reader. Onstage, Mary has fits and starts of fragmented activity – moving chairs around, filling water in a jug, cleaning a fish – but it’s sporadic and disjointed. It’s possible that the disjointedness is a deliberate choice, a manifestation of Mary’s traumatized, fractured emotional state, but that point doesn’t come across clearly. Many of the objects that Mary handles onstage represent emblems of Christ’s Passion – a hammer and nails, coils of wire suggesting the crown of thorns, a ladder evoking the cross. For a moment I thought perhaps Mary would eventually pull them all together in a unified way, but that didn’t really materialize either.
Despite the production’s shortcomings, the power of Tóibín’s text still shines through. Shaw is particularly effective in capturing Mary’s pain at Jesus’ apparently dismissive attitude towards her at the wedding in Cana: “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” Shaw also communicates Mary’s melancholy wonder at barely recognizing the child she raised in the rather imperious man standing before her: “If someone had told me that this is not my son, I would have believed them.” The strongest section of the play centers on the crucifixion, the event which Mary, and the text itself, circle around warily. It’s never absent from the edges of her memory, though, and she finally confronts it directly. Her description is harrowing, forcing us to confront the unmitigated horror of crucifixion without the softening, beatific effects of faith and religious tradition.
As a sort of prologue, the production presents us with a familiar, traditional version of Mary – Shaw sits in a clear box on stage like a museum exhibit – draped in blue, eyes raised heavenward, a symbol of obedient faith and an object for veneration. The play then proceeds to metaphorically shatter that box and disrupt our traditional ideas about Mary. It offers us instead an angry, grieving, very human woman. I only wish the production allowed Shaw to fully locate the devastating emotional truth that Tóibín’s text offers its readers.