Dr. David Cowan
I’ve only seen this production once before, in Toronto where Mary was played more in a more demure performance. We don’t get that in this absorbing production, with Jean Wilde as an earthy and distraught Mary.
Testament of Mary is a solo performance depicting the mother of Jesus telling the gospel story from her side and questioning his death and divinity. In a New York Times interview author Colm Tóibín explained “I thought of writing a play in which the Virgin Mary, the silent woman we prayed to, would speak. But the impulse to write the play was not political, was not to intervene in a debate about the church, but rather to work with a voice that had mattered to me personally, a voice that was iconic as well as human.” He added, “I wanted to create a mortal woman, someone who has lived in the world. Her suffering would have to be real, her memory exact, her tone urgent. But she would also have to live at some distance from the rest of us.”
Mary can’t bring herself to say Jesus’ name. She relates how she told the disciples they couldn’t sit in a chair she deliberately leaves empty for her son, which is an allusion to the Jewish tradition of the empty chair left for Elijah at Passover. The production gives us a sense of the claustrophobia of Mary’s loss and resentment towards the disciples after the death of Jesus. The early Christian community was one of hiddenness. It was an underground movement that was communal in its arrangements not out of ideology but out of necessity. This hiddenness is recognised in this production by the audience being addressed as friends and the use of torches when darkness ensues, giving us the impression we are all being watched, like Mary herself.
In historically Protestant Edinburgh, home of Scottish Reformer John Knox, the attack on Mary is less problematic than it has been in Tóibín’s homeland of Ireland. The book and play have proven controversial in Catholic circles, with one critic referring to it as a “by-the-numbers hatchet job.” I’m not a supporter of religious controversy, it rarely achieves much and usually misses the point. However, the peek behind the curtain taken by Tóibín is not controversial for anyone who studies theology, so I find the “shock! Horror!” of it all a bit of a ho-hum.
The play posits a Mary devoid of a son who is saviour, but once you take his divinity away then you either have a patchy iconoclasm or a drama about parental loss. I suggest it lacks the power or originality to achieve the former, and can be enjoyed more as the latter. No parent ever wants to bury their child, and in the climax Mary grieves with a power only a parent feels for the loss of their child, railing against the world, "When you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it."
Poor ticket sales on Broadway led to the original show closing early, suggesting the New York theatre-going audience didn’t think it was worth it either. The Catholic News Agency, wrote the show “depicted the Virgin Mary as a doubting skeptic who thought Jesus died in vain, and failed to attract a large audience and closed on Sunday less than two weeks after it opened.” I suggest it is simply a sign of the secularity of society, which is less connected to the biblical Mary or concerned by the religious devotion of believers today.
Perhaps as a play it fails to break through the established religious barriers, neither achieving popularity based on laughing at religion like The Book of Mormon, nor challenging us enough spiritually to get beneath the skin of believer and disbeliever alike. Like Mary the play remains bereft of a firm place in the audience imagination. There are not many places you will get to see this play, and rarely will you see such a powerful portrayal of parental embitterment and loss as that performed by Jean Wilde, so if you want to see the play for its own sake or for such a powerful portrayal of loss then you will find an excellent testament of this Mary in Edinburgh until August 28th.