Fiona Shaw and The Testament of Mary


Friday, April 19, 2013

The Irish actress and director Fiona Shaw stars as Mary, the mother of Jesus, in a one-woman show opening this week on Broadway. The Testament of Mary, which Colm Tóibín based on his own novel, presents not the saintly exemplar of maternal love familiar from religious paintings, but a woman of flesh and blood (and attitude). “I hope the trick of the play is that you’re meeting someone that you might meet in Brooklyn,” she tells Kurt Andersen.

Shaw is known for portraying larger-than-life women like Euripides’ Medea and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. She can play big, but she doesn’t want to mythologize: “Our job is to take the myth of this great person and discover what is very ordinary,” she explains, “because in the end the theater is about each of us.”

In The Testament of Mary, Tóibín’s Mary is anguished by the horror she’s seen, and spends much of the play trying to figure out how it all went so wrong for her promising boy. But the play is not without humor. Mary rails against her son’s friends — “his followers,” she says with bitter irony: "He gathered misfits, men without fathers, men who could not look a woman in the eye. 'Not one of you is normal!' I said."

Shaw, who grew up Irish Catholic, says there’s no sacrilege in the play, and feels that some religious protests against it have been misguided. She believes that her own mother, a regular churchgoer, will like it when she comes to New York next month. “She’s very keen that it doesn’t upset anyone.”


Comments [7]

Kathleen orington from midamerica, IL

PAUL from Morris county Has an opinion that represents less than half of us. THERE are more people who do not have a relationship with the bible and will not tolerate it being thrown up in their face in the tone of shame & blame. This work by Ms Shaw brings the story that you insist we see through your eyes, to many who otherwise would not be open at all. A NEW interpretation ad the mother of this important man, can now be offered up in a new way. How can that be anything but a good thing?

Dec. 02 2014 09:28 PM

Her greatness is in not letting petty selfish egotistical ephemera, fear of others, threats from social conformists, unknown consequences, deflect her from being her own person. The kind of cattiness, harshness, bitterness with which this fictional Mary refers to Jesuus's campanions are as far from her personality as is conceivably possible. It is the apotheosis of male criticism and fear of women and their creativity, [vulva envy as in Bruno Bettleheim “vagina envy” in 1954, Symbolic Wounds.] This is just the same old women hate recycled only this time by a woman. The idea that courage is foreign to women who only know pots pans and suspicions but not possibly the same heroism attributed to a male, even a god who made himself nothing, who considers godness of no importance but chooses love, being born to serve give and forgive. This play denies women's ability or need to live up to that aspiration. Denies the very possibility of Mary's heroism.

Yes this play is blasphemous, not because it denies any facts of scripture, or enlarges on scripture or misinterprets scripture. It is blasphemous because it denies half of humanity even the possibility of putting aside as if of no value their own personal private selves to embrace courage and heroism despite consequence, despite censure, despite threat. Quote""I remember everything," Mary says, her voice growing strained and harsh on that last word. " Why would i want to watch her not even try to rise above her disappointment in bitterness. I can do that without any help from you.

I prefer the zen, the heroism of Mary, who is more like the hero of Jean Genet, in Our Lady of Flowers, as she appears in actual scripture, a condemned woman of zero social standing, fallen from grace, like the son she bore, a reject who like Genet is glorifying in what the world paints as failure and disgrace, who embraces her actuality her reality her self as her inheritance, who she is, than to put on a costume of middle class bourgeois disappointment. When she was assumed into heaven after her passing in Ephasus, she did not have to leave behind her cloak of sorrow: she knew like any boddhisatva that first holy truth that no family escapes sickness old age and death, and like William Penn she embraced everything, no need to remember.

You give me a Mary who never lived. That is why it is blasphemy: it is untrue. That is not who we are.

Apr. 25 2013 12:02 PM

No, the play is not blasphemous. Anyone who takes it as proposed doctrine or abusive of christian teaching is intentionally ignoring the playwrite's statement that he is "a writer of fiction," whose job it is "to enter the minds" of his characters and to "create voices for them." The author is clearly not offering to usurp the gospel writers. That Mary expresses her profound grief as outrage seems in line with the familiar progression necessary to come to terms emotionally with a horrific loss.

The play first and foremost draws attention to the fact that very little is written is the gospels concerning Mary. Having this relatively blank slate, those that follow are essentially free to impose whatever ideal feels appropriate.

For the 90 minutes of this intense play, performed courageously by Fiona Shaw, the audience is asked to suspend momentarily the image that has been cultivated and to imagine - differently. You may come away with your beliefs and perceptions entirely intact, but you won't come away unaffected.

Apr. 22 2013 08:56 PM
Ed from Larchmont

The only way it's not blasphemous is if this woman is a janitor and it's a reflection on how average people sometimes get Church teaching wrong. (As Jesus asks 'Who do they say that I am?' Peter: 'Some say you are John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say a prophet.') But that sounds like an unlikely reading.

I know safer things to do than to teach false things about Mary. (The five first Saturdays were given to us to make reparation for the five blashpemies against Mary - her divine motherhood, her perpetual virginity, her immaculate conception, her assumption, and one more.)

Apr. 21 2013 09:50 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Blasphemous to Mary.

Apr. 21 2013 08:44 AM
BigGuy from Froest Hills


The show was difficult for me to appreciate. It's a monologue written by Toibin for Shaw for a festival in Ireland that became a novel, which has now become a longer monologue. Before the play officially begins, the stage is open for the audience to walk on up to witness the statue of the Virgin Mary in a big glass box. Shaw's toughest acting is that -- she's motionless and really does look like a statue. Then the audience gets seated, audience lights go down, the glass box goes up, and the statue comes to life.

Shaw relates the life of the adult Christ from the view of Mary being a concerned mom. Although some Catholic groups have attacked the play for being blasphemous, it's filled with piety.

It really does not seem to be Mary of 2000 years ago, but an Irish female janitor of today who has time on her hands when she's cleaning things in the middle of the night and who insanely believes she is Mary. She is talking to apostles of the Christ who want her to attest to His miracles, but she is insistent that her son was a man, not God. We witness her talk.

The stage business is of Shaw putting on coats and taking them off, moving furniture around, and after she recounts the crucifixion and death, stripping down, bathing in a small deep bathtub, getting dressed, and then witnessing a golden olive tree arising from the bathtub. She speaks loudly and softly and goes through all sorts of emotions as she speaks. After she recounts a story in the life of the Christ, the lighting changes, accompanied with some brief loud musical sounds, and then she resumes with another story.

It'd be a better play if Mary didn't move around so much and the set wasn't abstractions. It feels like being forced to think out the symbolism in theater of the absurd. When you're forced to think and feel though, it's not cathartic like seeing "Death of A Salesman" or "The Iceman Cometh" or Shakespear; it's more like getting a cavity filled at the dentist.

The play is thought provoking, but Testament of Mary is nowhere near as entertaining as the 2000 year old man saying, "Oh, Jesus. Bearded young man. Was a carpenter. He made our kitchen table. Did a good job too, don't know why he left the business. Would have had a good future in it."

If Colm Toibin's ideas and lines could be combined with George C. Wolfe's "Last Mama-On-The-Couch Play", this could be a great comedy for Tyler Perry dressed in drag as Mary.

Apr. 20 2013 05:21 PM
Paul from Morris County

"... how it all went so wrong for her promising boy."

Mary saw her son born without her knowing a man.
Mary saw her son perform miracles.
Mary saw her son heal multitudes of people.
Mary saw her son forgive them their sins.
Mary saw her son raise Lazarus from the dead.
Mary saw her son accused falsely.
Mary saw her son crucified.
Mary saw her son risen from the dead.
Mary saw her son for 40 days after his resurrection.
Mary saw the grace of God operating throughout His life.
Mary saw the wisdom and compassion of God for His creation.

I do her injustice by these few pitiful words.
If only we could raise our minds from our worldly thoughts to truly comprehend the wonder of God's wisdom. Would we not then think more carefully before we put our demonic imagination out there for people to absorb without substantial knowledge of the facts.

Apr. 19 2013 10:05 AM

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