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The Testament of Mary

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Describing the writing of the original stage version of The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin has said that the tone for the voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “came from Greek heroines such as Electra, Medea or Antigone, and from poets such as Sylvia Plath and Louise Gluck”. Now bringing that voice to the stage is Fiona Shaw, who has played the first two of those, and much else in her long theatrical collaboration with director Deborah Warner.

Shaw is a physically expressive actress, but a vocally much more limited one, relying on a stumbling sort of hesitancy and rasping repetitions to make her thoughts seem freshly minted and palpable. It sometimes feels there is more technique than real feeling, yet there is also a shedding of theatrical skin and at one point clothes that also makes it come paradoxically alive.

Shaw and Warner together do something else: they push each other to acts of great daring and courage and theatrical extremes. The last time they worked at the Barbican together, Shaw starred as Portia in a 2005 production of Julius Caesar with a cast of more than 100; now Shaw holds the same stage alone – apart from a brief, pre-show appearance of a turkey vulture – for a solo recitation of Mary’s account of her son’s last days and his very public death.

It’s a spellbinding, much-told story, but Toibin’s own fascinating text, which subsequently became a short, Man Booker-nominated novel, tells it from the perspective of an integral player who has historically been denied a voice of her own.

The result is both dense and intense. If it seems astonishing that it ever played Broadway, where it premiered last year, it has now found the perfect home at the Barbican Theatre.

Mark Shenton

  • Barbican Theatre, London
  • May 7-25
  • Author: Colm Toibin
  • Director: Deborah Warner
  • Producer: Barbican Centre
  • Cast: Fiona Shaw
  • Running time: 1hr 20mins

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The Stage is a British weekly newspaper and website covering the entertainment industry, and particularly theatre. It was founded in 1880. It contains news, reviews, opinion, features, and recruitment advertising.