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Springing theatrical surprises

Fiona Shaw in The Testament of Mary. Photo: Paul Kolnik
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Great artists always surprise you (and also, no doubt, themselves), by constantly entering uncharted waters. Fiona Shaw has done interesting things throughout her career, especially in collaboration with director Deborah Warner, since they first worked together in 1988 on an RSC production of Electra. And together they boldly enter uncharted waters as few others usually dare.

Last night they returned to the Barbican, where their previous venture together was a production of Julius Caesar in 2005 that had a cast of over 100 (in which Shaw played Portia amongst a company that also included Ralph Fiennes as Mark Antony and Simon Russell Beale as Cassius), for the London premiere of their latest collaboration on The Testament of Mary, a solo show performed by Shaw.

Watching this strange, affecting and intense monologue, in which Mary recounts the events leading up to and beyond the crucifixion of her son Jesus, I was amazed above all by one fact: that it had received its premiere on Broadway, of all places, in 2013. 

Here at the Barbican it felt perfectly at home: a performance piece, being presented for a very specific limited run, in a subsidised house that has built an audience for unusual theatre events. Yet Broadway, that breathless commercial marketplace which stands or falls by one place only, namely the box office, seems like an entirely different proposition.

But Shaw, Warner and a fantastically bold producer Scott Rudin premiered it at Broadway’s Walter Kerr THeatre last year. It didn’t get the sort of audiences it needed to sustain a run, though it ignited controversy and religious protests, as well as three Tony nominations, including one for Best Play.

Yet on the very day that those Tony nominations were announced, the decision was also made to close it. In a New York Times interview with its writer Colm Toibin, who also teaches at Columbia University, he spoke of the day of learning of the two things:

I had read about the nominations online, and made some calls to people, as one does. I was happy. Then I realized I had to get ready to discuss essays with my undergraduates. So I had a shower and was half-shaved when the phone rang, and it was that lovely voice saying, ‘I have Scott Rudin on the line for you.’ These are hard calls to make. He was very nice about it. But you know, about 30,000 people will have seen the play over a 6-week run by the time it closes, with a standing ovation every night. In European terms, that’s a huge success. In Dublin I’d be walking around with everyone saying, what an amazing success you’ve had with your play. But in New York the template is another of Scott’s shows – The Book of Mormon, where you’d have three productions touring the world and never ending. We won’t do that. The play will have productions in Spain, Brazil, Denmark, and some other countries we’re talking to.

And here it is in London, now produced by the Barbican Centre, so it’s short-lived Broadway life is just a historical footnote. But its also embedded in the performance we are now watching: as Deborah Warner states in a programme note to this production,

As we prepare for the Barbican, we carry the history and experiences of our New York performances into the rehearsal room. To this will be added the reactions of the London audience…. It will be a pleasure to see how the London audience will help us create, shape and take this beautiful text even further.

For Shaw and Warner, a piece of theatre is never static but constantly evolving. And the audience is part of that process. As Warner also writes,

The ‘solo show’ demands participation, attention and I would argue, our preparedness to enter the event. We all know that ‘live theatre’ depends on the heart-beat, energy and concentration of the audience in order to make no two nights the same; but solo work makes this obvious.

And we were surprised, yet again, by these artists, as ready to challenge themselves as the throw down the gauntlet to challenge the audience, too.

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