Friday, February 10, 2017

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín.  Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, January 18 – February 25, 2017.

Director – Imara Savage;  Designer – Elizabeth Gadsby;  Lighting – Emma Valente;  Composer and Sound Design – Max Lyandvert.

Performed by Alison Whyte.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 9

I would not normally begin by mentioning that I was surprised when this expert and experienced actor lost her lines – three times by my count.  Perhaps it was just one of those nights that all actors fear, but I think there are deeper reasons in this play and its production.

The idea of Mary, the mother of Christ, telling her story of her son and what really happened when he was executed by the Romans (with the support of the Jewish Elders) is clearly a great beginning point for a significant play.  But in this production, Tóibín’s script makes Mary into a modern-sounding middle-class woman.

In addition, this over-grand set and sound design, encompassing a character speaking in an over-poetical style, at times declamatory, makes for inappropriate over-blown theatre.  Though a few young audience members felt the need to produce a whoop and whistle or two, because that is how all plays are to be concluded nowadays, most clapped without very much enthusiasm, as did I, even though I felt some chagrin considering the hard work that had gone into the acting.

The title – Testament – would have been enough for me to suggest the importance of what Mary has to say.  But opening to a cathedral-like backdrop behind Ms Whyte dressed up as a statue of Mary cradling a child, with a spinning halo of flashing lights in an apse sculptured by electric flickering candles made the subject of the play obvious – though, indeed, I was not able to be sure if this representation of the Virgin might not have meant to be satirical.

I thought not, though, when Ms Whyte divested herself in a literally off-hand manner – the plastic statue’s hands were left scattered on the stage floor along with the dress and the toy sheep which had seemed to be the Christ-child.  Now in bare feet, loose singlet top and gym pants, Mary tells us why the modern vinyl chair is forever not to be sat upon and will never be sat upon again, and we begin to understand that her son, never named except as ‘my son’, will never come back again.

There is also a large cardboard box, of the kind used for packing when moving house, with no apparent purpose until the end of the play, when Mary shows a momentary feeling for the rich gown her son had once worn, when he was speaking to the assembled crowds, as she stuffs the remains of her own statue into the box, tapes it up with very modern packing tape, to more or less kick it off-stage.

So, as you can imagine, the symbolism is very obvious, emphasised by blackouts between sections of her story, an ever-changing array of lighting effects (including one where we, in the audience, were blinded by massively bright floodlighting), and accompanied by sound effects, most of which seemed to purport to be background crowd noises – increasingly ugly as the crucifixion approached.

No wonder this Mary felt the need to declaim so much – to tell her story at us, rather than to and for us.  It felt to me as if she were in a court, defending what she knew to be the truth about what had really happened against some accusing lawyer.  But the problem for me was that this made me feel as if I were her accuser – as if I believed the story of the Virgin Mary as the Church, that is the Catholic Church, had made her appear to be.

So I got that point, but I missed the feeling – of sympathy and understanding for an ordinary woman from a struggling household wanting to do her best for her son, who turned out to be a charismatic con man instead of a sensible ordinary working man like his father.  Instead of staging her story in this way, I think Tóibín’s playscript – even despite the diverging complexities which would inevitably be confusing – would have worked far more powerfully without the theatricality.

I saw a woman going through a life in which her love for her child is tragically destroyed.  She has only an empty space and her memories.  I see her in a warm light, seated on a rough wooden bench, across from the other one – the  empty one – talking to us personally, as if privately, about her life and what happened to her son.  She wants us to believe her, not the gossip we may have heard or the stories made up by the people who were taken in by her son’s silliness.  Her story is mainly quiet explanation of what she knows to be the truth.

Though my production would give little work for a lighting designer and maybe for some sound at the beginning and the end, the stage designer would need only to ensure that this woman’s world was kept enclosed in that intimate little pool of light while the director would work closely and intensely with her actor on expressing each of the myriad feelings Mary experiences as she remembers, tells us and explains to us.  In keeping with much of Tóibín’s language, I hear an Irish accent and intonation patterns as she speaks. 

Then, I feel, with no grandiosity, no abrupt stops and starts, no blackouts, no alarums of lights and sound, there would be no lines lost in the 80 minutes of the telling of the Testament of Mary.  And there would be a silence of appreciation for the actor, and a silence of understanding of the reality of the life of Mary, mother of Jesus.

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