Carol Brady. Anjezë Bojaxhiu. Malory Archer.
The world has no shortage of famous mothers, yet few – in fact, none – have become so mythologised and cherished as Mary, mother of Jesus.
Step beyond the New Testament and the Quran, and her legacy – cobbled together across various interpretations, speculations and faiths though it may be – is indisputable. From speaking words of wisdom to Hollywood, from gallery to cathedral, the Holy Mother is one of the core figures of world history. Now, Alison Whyte has the curious honour of bringing her to life in Colm Tóibín’s The Testament Of Mary, and the prolific performer cannot wait.
“I’ve done one solo show before, sort of,” Whyte explains. “That was The Bloody Chamber down at Malthouse. An actor came on to read a page of dialogue with me, but the majority was just me. So in terms of the responsibility for telling a solo story, I’m feeling pretty good.
“Monologues are really interesting in terms of their little arcs, what needs to support it,” she says. “I’ve just come off Faith Healer [at Belvoir], which is a three-handed [play] but we never speak to each other onstage. I finished Faith Healer on a Sunday, and started rehearsals for Mary on the Monday. And it feels like these two plays have such… resonance. And it’s not only the proximity of the two shows, but there’s a lot of crossover in theme. I mean, both writers are Irish as well, and have quite a musical tone to their script. There’s a real musicality to the language which we’re trying to bring to life, and that’s been a major challenge and pleasure.”
The Testament Of Mary is set many decades after the crucifixion of Jesus, and rather than the divine matriarch some might expect, instead we find a woman still haunted by the trials her son endured. Adamant that the reality of her child not be lost to history and parable, Tóibín’s version of Mary is first and foremost that of a mother, as proud and flawed as any of our own.
“In terms of the play, that’s what is so interesting,” Whyte says. “She is a mother of someone who is crucified, and for a very particular reason. She doesn’t really know any of the iconography that [develops], or what she has come to represent. In fact, she’s fighting against that in a way. We first see Mary as a 70-year-old woman, and we’re flicking between watching her in the years leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, to now.
“[Tóibín]’s painted a really beautiful, humane, multidimensional person, and that’s what the play is about. Stripping all the other stuff back, and allowing this person to be who she perhaps might have been. Looking at things through a mother’s terrified, adoring eyes, seeing what’s going to unfold, wanting to warn him, seeing how people are orchestrating it. She’s very suspicious, very fearful. It’s a beautiful portrait.
“And in a way, I suppose a lot of the narrative is already there!” Whyte laughs. “So you can concentrate on the psychological all the more. [Tóibín] was doing some writing masterclass, and decided to talk about the topic of relentlessness. He was thinking about the relentlessness of grief, of living with trauma; how relentless that might be. And he thought, ‘Well, maybe I could use Mary as my main character!’ And that’s how it came about. It’s written for one voice, so it was perfect for a stage adaptation.”
For an audience, stepping into the theatre to hear the reflections of Mary is a scintillating proposition. There exists a potential for controversy, of course (any depiction of such a renowned and revered figure is bound to invite some share of debate), but neither Tóibín nor the cast and crew of The Testament Of Mary are seeking to offend or criticise. Instead, we are invited to witness the humanity behind the hagiography; to feel for Mary not as the Blessed Virgin, but as a grieving parent.
“There’s a couple of versions of this story out there,” Whyte notes. “One called Testament, while Testament Of Mary is [Tóibín’s] later version. It’s the same story, but very different styles. This version concentrates more on the episodic miracles that Jesus performs, though she never speaks his name. In the play, there are two people trying to get her version of events – or rather, they’re trying to instruct her on what her version of events are. Two of the disciples, also never named, who are writing their testaments. It’s not at all blasphemous. All of those lessons of loving others, loving strangers, that basic message to be selfless and to love – that’s what this story is. The amount of love this woman feels for her family, it’s beautiful. I’m very lucky to play her.
“The play raises a lot of questions. Look at ‘Love thy neighbour’. Now, the morality has changed. Greed, selfishness, it’s somehow not immoral any more. It’s accepted and celebrated. The state of the world is such that there’s a different morality, and perhaps we need to be reminded of that. Reminded what the foundations of this religion are. Was his suffering, being sent to redeem mankind, was it worth it? It’s something Mary asks in the play. Now at the start of 2017, people are still being murdered, you see homelessness, see what’s happening in Aleppo. We need to be a little bit kinder, don’t we?”
[The Testament Of Mary photo by James Green]
The Testament Of Mary runs until Saturday February 25 at Wharf 1 Theatre.