A grieving mother wracks and sobs on a bed. She is devastated, heartbroken, traumatised. She has been hidden from the world. For her own protection, she was told. But she knows it is so the truth of her son’s life and death won’t get out. He was the son of God, they are saying. He has saved humanity. But Mary knows different.
Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary is a bleak, fragile, dramatic, occasionally blasphemous retelling of the life and death of Jesus Christ, from the perspective of his mother. Mary, mother of God, is before us, having been left in a modern apartment and expected to be kept silent. But she refuses to stay silent, and Mary (Pamela Rabe) is ready to be heard.
Testament of Mary is a play-length monologue, in which Mary revisits key events of Jesus’ life, and tells us what she saw. She is confused and distressed by her son’s radicalisation; she is traumatised from witnessing his murder; she is furious at being told to shut up; she has fled the world she knows; she is a scared refugee.
The Mary of this script is a thoroughly modern woman, played by Rabe with honour and anguish. Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, this production is at once domestic and frenetic. A restless Mary paces agitatedly around the modern day apartment to which she is confined (set designed by Marg Horwell). Harsh overhead lights by Paul Jackson and unhinged sound design by Steve Toulmin dissect and expose both the space and the woman. The result is a production which feels as though it may unravel at any point.
The elements of the production have moments of cohesion, but ultimately it feels as though the creatives were working against each other, rather than as a communicative whole, and often the direction and design aspects undercut Rabe’s performance, or vice versa. There is a gorgeous sequence of stillness and focus (admittedly a favourite theatrical device of mine) as Mary retells the story of Christ’s passion and death. Rabe’s performance reaches its peak – it is here we see the overwhelming grief, shame and trauma endured by Mary, as she tries to piece herself back together and tell us what she knows to be true.
The Testament of Mary is a fascinating exercise, and one executed if not wonderfully, then with wonderful moments. It is a touching and at times gripping portrayal of the story we know so well, and an engagement with the forgotten woman behind “the greatest story ever told” is a welcome addition to the theatrical canon, and to Melbourne’s stages.