THE TESTAMENT OF MARY
THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, 18 January-25 February 2017. Photography by Lisa Tomasetti
At 90 minutes on stage or 81 printed book pages, Colm Tóibín’s work of 2012-2013 is a gem – one shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the other earned a Tony nomination for Best Play; neither was won but no matter. On stage, The Testament of Mary is an intense, transfixing, lyrical experience in the hands of director Imara Savage and a great actress: Alison Whyte.
For the play, Wharf 1 is transformed by designer Elizabeth Gadsby and lighting designer Emma Valente into somewhere chapel- or crypt-like. Max Lyandvert’s electro-liturgical music and soundscape add to an atmosphere wherein it’s easy to imagine the mix of incense and mildew that would permeate the black marble walls of such a place. And a red silk rope strung around the edge separates the congregation from the holy of holies: a flickering candle-lined niche on a dais from whence a classically gaudy statue of Our Lady begins her story.
Tóibín is a slyly smart as well as poetic writer and in titling the piece a “testament” he is suggesting what the Oxford Dictionary defines as “something that serves as a sign or evidence of a specified fact, event, or quality...” In other words, we are witnessing truth and reality. Except, of course, The Testament of Mary is a novella and a play – on words, deeds and actions.
Alison Whyte’s Mary confirms all the above and more. She is blessedly plausible as a woman exasperated by the typically ridiculous deeds of a bunch of over-zealous young men; a mother and grown woman – and a mistress of the art of story-telling. At some point she says of a disciple, “I know that he has written of things that neither he nor I saw.”
And there’s the rub: she is being badgered by those who would write a best-selling Gospel for her own anecdotes and – more important for them – confirmation that their versions of events are correct. However, from the often irritated Mary it quickly becomes clear that the concept of the unreliable witness is not new.
Thing is, we flawed little human beings see and remember events and people in ways that suit us. We can’t help it, and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were no different. Like so many historians and drivers of political movements, they were intent on building a legacy; in this instance for the actions and sayings of Mary’s son. (She never mentions him by name, in this agonised omission she is Everymother.)
Mary’s view of their breathless accounts of such events as raising Lazarus from the dead or turning water into wine at a boozy wedding is that they were not so much miraculous as laddish ego and dubious motives. In a matter-of-fact and typically maternal tone of exasperation Mary makes this plausible. It’s a reminder that so often a fact is merely a matter of belief: something the post-truth era is placing in a harsh light.
Alison Whyte was most recently seen in Sydney late last year in Belvoir’s The Faith Healer. She was mesmerising in it, alone in a different kind of Irish story. This time the monologue is extended even further as she engages her audience in “the greatest story ever told”. Mary’s perspective is stripped of all hyperbole and heroism, however, and becomes an examination of those slippery prizes, “truth” and “love”.
Marvellous text, spellbinding performance. Perhaps not for Catholics of a fragile disposition, although they’d come out of it better than they went in. Amen.