Fiona Shaw and Colm Toibin on 'The Testament of Mary' the Broadway play
Cahir O'Doherty speaks with the play's author Colm Toibin
Many Irish women believe that their sons can walk on water, but Mary the Mother of God’s son literally did. It made for a remarkable life, regardless of whether or not you believe in it.
Next week Irish actress Fiona Shaw, 54, will be channeling both the love and fury of the most famous woman of all time when she steps into the title role of The Testament of Mary, the remarkably powerful new play by award winning Irish novelist and playwright Colm Toibin, when it opens in previews on Broadway.
At first glance Mary may seem like an unlikely subject for Toibin, originally from Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, but look again and she follows easily from the central themes of his most recent novel, Brooklyn – both stories feature women asserting their identities in an era and in an atmosphere that’s usually hostile to their efforts.
It’s impossible to refrain from speculating about what made Toibin, a former altar boy raised in a Catholic home where the rosary was said, approach his famous (and famously elusive) subject. Lives of Jesus are often attempted by celebrated writers but Mary, he concedes, has been consistently overlooked.
“Maybe it’s because they feel her life is so well-known,” Toibin tells the Irish Voice. “She suffers but she doesn’t speak, she’s meek and mild.
“As opposed to Jesus on the cross who says quite a lot, he has parables and sermons, he has a lot to say and so do the gospel writers. Growing up I noticed how her silence gave her power. I didn’t notice particular devotion to Saint Matthew, Mark Luke or John.”
The Testament of Mary is not, it should be noted, the work of a militant agnostic or atheist out to prove or disprove anyone's theories, his own or anyone else's. Instead it's a remarkably powerful – and at times terrifying – attempt to grapple with the reality of the woman who inspired it. But it not a Molotov cocktail delivered to the crisis-plagued church.
“We would have said the rosary at home,” says Toibin, recalling the utterly unremarkable Irish religious traditions of his youth with obvious affection.
“The first connection our house had with the wider continent of Europe was via Lourdes. People came back talking of the heat, the different habits, people didn’t put milk in their tea, all the strange things that happened in France – you couldn’t get fizzy orange.
“But in the evenings they were in the grotto. All of that was a part of my life.”
In a staged rehearsal with Shaw on Broadway last week to introduce the play, the spine-tingling fury that accompanies Mary's recollection of her son's terrible fate came to the fore early. I ask him if he was surprised by the intensity of Mary's anger as he wrote the play?
“No, because if you’re writing that it’s not a question of technically getting it down on the page. It’s a question of actually inhabiting it,” he says.
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