“The way it was experienced might have been different. The drama that's going on in this text is between her efforts to be truthful and their efforts to be influential.”
It wasn’t always clear that this religion would hold such a place in world history, even in the first 50 years after the crucifixion, Toibin says. It took extraordinary determination on the part of a number of people and organization skills for this story of life, death and the good news of resurrection to move as it did.
“I’m catching it at a moment when it is not clear what it will do. When it may be a cult or a sect that will fade,” he says.
“It’s a key moment when a number of men have seen the possibility of spreading the good news, and a woman on the other hand has not seen that possibility. She simply remains traumatized and for her it is a simply unresolved personal experience.”
Often Toibin’s Mary is closer to Medea than the Bible's silent lady in blue, but this is intentional. Toibin knows that her son, the figure on the cross, has extraordinary mythic power, as does the idea of his life being a kind of an intervention in world history. At all points he focuses the play on what it must have cost her to witness her son’s suffering.
“All I want to do is to allow her to take it personally, as anybody might. I think it’s vital that she speaks without being interrupted,” he says.
Before she was anything else, Toibin reminds us, Mary was a girl, then a wife and mother. Her story unfolded over time; it was not known to her beforehand.
Even what the gospels tell us about the angel and the virgin birth, they don’t raise the vale on the terrible final act. She went through her life putting one foot in front of the other, and grappling with what happens, as we must all do.
It was the landmark productions by Galway's Druid Theatre, directed by Garry Hynes, that actually persuaded Toibin that he could write The Testament of Mary, he says.
“Once it occurred to me that it could be done I became interested. That came from looking at the work of Garry Hynes at Druid, looking at the work that Siobhan McKenna, Marie Mullen and Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner were doing,” he offers.
“Those plays had an enormous effect on me and the audience. I realized that theater was the place where this work could be done.”
Both Shaw and the play's director Warner have a way of making a text matter to an audience, where you walk out of the theatre transformed, Toibin says. That was why he wanted to work with them.
Meanwhile, production on the big screen adaptation of Toibin’s last novel Brooklyn is moving ahead, but he won't be involved with the effort he says.
“Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay based on the book which is great. Technically and emotionally it’s a brilliant piece of work. He has stripped the story to its essentials and I’m very happy with his work,” he says.
“As far as I understand Rooney Mara has agreed to do it. No one needs me any more!”
(The Testament of Mary opens at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, New York, on March 26. Call 212-239-6200 for tickets and showtimes.)