Spring Arts Guide: The Testament of Mary, Quite Contrary

Fiona Shaw and Colm Tóibin explore the inner life of Jesus's mom

As a girl in County Cork, the Irish actor Fiona Shaw walked past a statue of the Virgin Mary every day on her way to school. She didn't care much for the sculpture—"this revolting statue, this mass-produced blemished virgin with marble all around"—or for the Virgin, either.

Crunching an apple during a snatched rehearsal break on the ninth floor of a midtown high-rise, Shaw recalled her early associations with the biblical Mary. "She seemed to be so watery and blue," said Shaw of the Virgin's typically insipid portrayal in art. "She's a blank virgin mother without personality, whose virtues don't seem to include anything you'd want to explore as a child—not lively, not chatty, never said anything remotely interesting."

And yet, Shaw, 54, a helplessly interesting actor with sharp features and an even sharper intellect, will play that virgin—and on Broadway, no less—when Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary, directed by Shaw's longtime collaborator Deborah Warner, begins previews on March 26 at the Walter Kerr Theatre. "I knew if Colm wrote a version of Mary's story it wouldn't be blue and watery," said Shaw.

Tóibín is an Irish writer of daunting precision and rare psychological insight, perhaps best known for the novels Brooklyn and The Master. His Mary has plenty to say, rather little of it virginal, holy, or full of grace. In this monologue, first written for the theater and then recently published in expanded form as a novella, an elderly Virgin reflects on her own life and that of her celebrated son.

Even as Tóibín's Mary struggles to live quietly, encountering the simple pleasures and demands of the everyday, early Christian followers intrude on her solitude. She offers a more acerbic attitude toward these disciples than what the Gospels suggest. "A group of misfits," she calls them, "or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye." These men want her to tell a story that extols and glorifies her son. Mary only wants to narrate her particular truth—which includes a troubled relationship with that son and a skepticism surrounding his godliness.

Tóibín portrayed a County Wexford childhood even more saturated with the Virgin than Shaw's. Perched on a swivel chair in his book-lined office at Columbia University, he spoke of "a world of Mary, praying to Mary, statues of Mary." A former altar boy, he recalled a prayer, "Hail, Holy Queen," that he recited every night of his youth. (For her part, Shaw recalled saying the Hail Mary "every two minutes." She can rattle off the whole of it in four seconds flat.)

Tóibín never really intended the play, which he first began writing during a visit to Ephesus, for Broadway. "It's not something I ever thought would happen," he said. But following a successful debut in Dublin in 2011, starring the Tony-winning actress Marie Mullen, producer Scott Rudin insisted on bringing it here.

Though it might seem a highly secular space, the Great White Way has often proved hospitable to plays and musicals with strong religious themes. The past several years have seen such new plays as Doubt and Grace, as well as successful revivals of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Yet while the latter are both drawn from the Gospels, neither includes a Virgin Mary.

One difficulty in staging the Queen of Heaven is that in the Gospels she barely appears and speaks even more rarely. Tóibín said that for anyone who undertakes to imagine Mary, "you're dealing with silence. Her silence. The imploring figure at the cross is silent. The figure in general is silent." Marveled Shaw, "She only says about two things in all the New Testament."

Tóibín cited a host of inspirations for the voice of his Mary: Greek heroines, Bach cantatas, various contraltos, a Titian canvas and one by Tintoretto, the late poems of Sylvia Plath, recent novels by J.M. Coetzee, and a poem Tóibín himself wrote as a teenager, now lost. Tóibín has fused these disparate sources into a forceful, enduring tone—anguished, bitter, and often contemptuous, particularly of all the adoration her son has generated.

Of the resulting script, he said, "Very few actresses could do it." Yet despite her demurrals about unlikely casting, Shaw seems an obvious choice for this prickly, complicated character. Among Shaw's virtues, according to Tóibín: "absolute fearlessness, fierce intelligence, extraordinary physical agility, and a face that can do anything."

Shaw has never shied away from difficult roles. Though film audiences may know her best from comical turns as Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter series, she boasts a daunting theatrical résumé, from Medea and Mother Courage to a cross-cast Richard II. She memorized T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land as a solo piece and more recently learned and recited Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner accompanied by a dancer, a production that will play the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the fall.

But while Shaw is an old hand at undertaking layered characters and thorny monologues, she described rehearsal for The Testament of Mary as "a huge struggle." Shaw's approach focuses less on Mary's exceptionality—it's not every woman who births the putative Messiah—and more on her universality: Many women have troubled relationships with their children. In charting the script, Shaw discovered "a wonderful story of family betrayals, family losses," she said. "It's the story of a woman who is rejected by her son and then rejects her son, and that could happen anywhere."

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