Knowing little or nothing about this production I found the ten minutes prior to the performance oddly disorientating. Were those four figures sat along the side of the set part of the performance? Why had I just been handed a torch to use in case of a power failure? Was the hooded figure issuing me instructions for the torch an actor or crew member? What kind of space did the set represent?
This sense of uncertainty sets the tone for a play that explores unsettling and unprecedented territory: The Testament of Mary offers a radical reenvisioning of the story of Jesus Christ from a mother’s perspective. The play begins not with a bang but with a whimper. I wondered, briefly, if this monologue going to sustain my attention for 70 minutes, but these misgivings were misplaced. As the testament advances, Jean Wilde’s compelling performance grows ever greater in force and intensity.
Tóibín’s Mary is not a sanctified or sentimentalised figure but a real one worn down by years of anguish. Drab, haggard and often huddled into her own being, she speaks in the incredulous tones of a woman whose ordinary world view has been shattered by extraordinary world events. And at the centre of it all her son, Jesus, a once shy child who has grown up to become the charismatic leader of an incendiary religious cult.
A reviewer of an earlier production couldn’t help but make a comparison with Monty Python’s Life of Brian. “He’s not the Messiah” Brian’s mum squeals. “He’s a very naughty boy”. Indeed, Mary can only express disapprobation of her son’s grand manner, miraculous antics and the unseemly band of misfits who seem to congregate around him.
While Mary’s testimony doesn’t discount the possibility of the divine, she casts a skeptical eye over the ecstatic claims made for him – a mother’s love is, after all, biological and to deny Jesus his flesh and blood provenance is to deny Mary her motherhood. Even Jesus seems to disavow her. “What have I to do with you?” he asks of her. Brutal words? Or an attempt to protect her from the fallout that is to come?
Adapted from Tóibín’s Man Booker shortlisted novella, the language, which has a faintly archaic turn, is pared down and raw to the bone. For all her peasant roots, Mary is articulate and often caustically to the point. Jesus’s disciples, for example, idle their days “roaming the countryside in search of want and affliction”.
As Mary closes in on the moment of crucifixion, her testimony becomes almost unbearable to hear. She cannot stand to watch, not can she stand to be absent. Finally Jesus’s resurrection, mesmerically recounted, is given a touch of visual magic via the use of floor lighting and floating dust. Tóibín’s Mary, ‘the mother of all controversies’, certainly stirred up waters in the US and, judging by comments I heard on the way out of the studio as well as by one public review posted on the production’s EdFringe listing, it isn’t without its controversies at the Fringe. Good. A growing presence on the Birmingham theatre scene, the Old Joint Stock Theatre’s first outing to Edinburgh deserves all the attention it gets.
The Testament of Mary is on until 28 August 2017 at C Venues. Click here for more details.