Edinburgh Fringe 2017
For 2,000 years Mary has been a woman seen but not heard. In this solo play by Colm Toibin Mary is no saint, not meek, nor obedient. She is clear-eyed and sharp-witted. Piecing together memories of some of Jesus’s miracles, his last days, and the crucifixion Mary brings a mother’s powerful perspective to a very complex and human story of turmoil and sacrifice. At the core of this interpretation beats the heart of a woman grieving an unbearable loss. Her question is: was it worth it?
Once settled in our seats some of us are given a small torch, told that the power often goes off and to use it if asked. It is part of creating the unsettling setting for this powerful and challenging piece of theatre.
Jean Wilde performs The Testament of Mary, a play written by Colm Tóibín, based on his 2012 novella of the same name and 2011 play Testament. It is a complete, and powerful, reimagining of Mary’s story, she is angry and delivers a bleak and bitter testament.
It’s a mother’s account of life with a son (she cannot bring herself to utter his name) she did not understand, doing things that she feared would bring unwelcome attention from the authorities and finally her harrowing account of his last days and the crucifixion. The setting is a safe house some years later where she is under pressure to give a different kind of account, not to here enemies but to her apparent protectors, the men responsible for writing the early gospels. She cannot read or write so the interpretation lies in their hands. The lighting is low, it does go out, and we do need our torches. Director Tracy Street has Wilde make use of every inch of the small stage as Mary recounts her anxiety about the rabble that her son is leading, the unwelcome attention the miracles are attracting, the way that he no longer seems to recognise her as his mother. She desperately wants to return the days of his childhood when life was simple and predictable. The story moves back and forth between memories of those simpler days and the events that destroyed her life.
Wilde’s performance is pitch perfect, she is entirely convincing as a woman trying to make sense of the events, grieving for both the son she thought she had and the death of the one she found she did have. The one she describes as a trouble maker leading a rabble of troublemakers. She begins quietly but builds the pace and intensity throughout so that the 70 minutes are entirely absorbing and it comes as a shock to be hurriedly escorted out at the end because ‘it isn’t safe to stay here’.
It is a challenging piece of theatre; it does not tell the story of the Mary many of us are familiar with from the Bible. However, neither, as some reviews and commentators have suggested, does it somehow prove that Christianity is a complete fabrication and can therefore be dismissed. It explores the grief and pain of a woman who finds that her son, the baby, the child she has raised has become a man that she doesn’t understand determined to follow a path that makes no sense to her. There are many parallels around the world today.
It deserves to be seen by believers and non-believers alike. For the former (and I include myself here) I think it provides some real grit to the stories we have become comfortable with. She took me into those scenes – the disciples as a ‘rabble’, Lazurus disorientated in his new found life, the horrors of the crucifixion – and made them painfully vivid. They may or may not have happened as she presented them but I came away with a new appreciation of how terrifying and confusing those times must have been. And for those from other faiths or no faith it is more than simply an excuse to dismiss the Bible and Christianity because there are women all over the world in every country and faith whose testament could be Mary’s. And we need to be listening to them.