As my husband was quick to point out, I don’t like to admit I am wrong. in the case of The Testament Of Mary, however, I was way off the mark. It took Fiona Shaw’s masterly performance at The Barbican in the stage adaptation of the novella for me to finally understand the message.
I usually enjoy Toibin’s writing – I loved Brooklyn and The Master, his portrait of Henry James, is one of my favourite books. I think he is particularly skillful in giving a voice to otherwise marginalised women. The ‘real’ story of the Virgin Mary seemed to be his ideal territory. On first reading, however, the book didn’t speak to me at all.
A friend had arranged tickets for us to see the staging of the book at The Barbican. The one-woman play had transferred from Broadway , where it had been met with accolades but also with pickets and protests by those offended as what they saw as its subversive message.
The staging is stark. Before the play begins, the audience is invited to look around the stage.Fiona Shaw sits in a glass box, muttering an incantation and appearing as a classic depiction of The Virgin.
It is this portrayal that Mary is railing against in the book. She doesn’t want to become an icon in a story written by others, largely men. She wants us to know exactly what happened and not the distorted story the followers are now disseminating to suit their own ends.
Not until I watched Shaw’s performance did I really hear the scornful tone of Mary’s voice and her beautiful Irish lilt captures the poetic rhythm of the text.
There is also wit to Mary’s tale.She was suspicious of her son’s new associates from the start :
‘ He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves or had grown old when they were still young Not one of you is normal, I said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food toward me me as if he were a child in a tantrum. Yes, misfits, I said. ‘
She casts doubt on some of the miracles now being proclaimed by his followers. She attended the wedding of Cana in order to warn her son that he was in danger :
‘ I wondered indeed if some of the men standing in front of our table had not had enough wine. But my son stood up and spoke to those around him , asking that six stone containers full of water be brought to him. What was strange was how quickly those containers were carried into the room.I do not know whether they all contained water or wine, certainly the fist one contained water, but in all the shouting and confusion no one knew what had happened until they began to shout that he had changed the water into wine.’
There is an urgency to her tale. She is anxious about the way the story of what happened to her son is now being retold. Facts are being changed :
‘And each time we start again at the beginning and each time they move from being excited by a detail to being exasperated by something that comes soon afterwards, another detail maybe, a refusal to add what they want me to add, or an opinion I express on their tone or their efforts to make simple sense of things that are not simple.’
The shadowy figures of his followers stalk her. She is now their virtual prisoner , held for her safety in Ephesus having fled Jerusalem and is awaiting her own death. She is an asset to them but also a liability. With the final strength of her body and mind she wants us to hear what really happened.
The book and play serves as a warning against religious fanaticism .Her son’s followers are taking a set of occurrences and twisting and changing them to suit their own ends.The truth of what happened is lost and those around them must be brain-washed into seeing the world through their eyes.
‘ I was back in the world of fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers, all of them hysterical now and almost of of breath with excitement even before they spoke.And within this group of men I noticed that there was a set of hierarchies, men who spoke and were listened to, for example, or whose presence created silence, or who sat at the top of the table…….’
I re-read the book after watching the play. It is a powerful invocation of the beauty and dangers of religious belief, not specifically Christian. The play is breath taking. I hope it tours widely so that more people get the chance to see it.