I first encountered the work of Irish author Colm Tóibín in January 2013. I was on holiday in wintry Dublin, looking for a book that might draw me away from my usual delight in lengthy plot-driven novels to something more poetic, where beauty might be found in a single phrase that could be revisited. The Testament of Mary fit the bill perfectly. Its underlying narrative tension was further fired for me by the theological question as to whether this literary invention was a destructive assault on Christianity or an authentic reflection on its deepest truths.
It was thus with a mixture delight and trepidation that I attended the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of the Testament of Mary in February 2017. Was the text as gripping and confronting, terrible and true as I recalled? How would witnessing this performance in the company of others change my reaction to Tóibín’s Mary?
The wonderful Sydney Wharf Theatre created an unanticipated opportunity to eavesdrop as other patrons took their seats. Naturally enough, these self-appointed experts exchanged their perspectives on Mary. In a week dominated by the testimony of the Catholic Archbishops before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, it was no surprise that the Catholic church was ridiculed. (Protestants also got a pretty good serve for avoiding the subject of Mary altogether.) Christendom’s Mary was perceived as the product of power-hungry men who idolised Mary, placing her on a pedestal with robes and crown, and inventing strange doctrines concerning her birth, pregnancy, and death to explain how she was unlike any other woman.
Well, fair enough, although my inner cultural historian wanted to interrupt to point out how often Church doctrine on Mary has followed, rather than led, popular devotional practice.
More interesting was the absence of any discussion of whether Mary had ever actually existed. Thus, even before the play had begun, the audience had prepared itself to hear the “authentic” Mary of history.
And so we began. Alison Whyte’s performance was utterly gripping, building a emotional crescendo of revelation from beginning to end. This was theatre at its best; some simple props, minimal choreography, and thoughtful use of sound and light that kept a tight focus on performer and text. What emerged was an authentically conflicted voice that revealed Mary as, above all else, a human being. Whatever bonds others put upon her behaviour, her words, her thoughts, this Mary exercised her free will to make sense of her own life.
Theologically the play engages directly with Christian understanding of divine inspiration in scripture and tradition. Tóibín argues that the biblical canon was deliberately framed by men. These zealous disciples wished to control and purify the content and meaning of Jesus’ life and teaching in order to change the world into a kingdom made in their image. Mary, in contrast, remembers the detail and emotion of actually being there. Her ulterior motive is not to build an institutional identity but solely to record her memories of love, loss and grief. I found myself thinking of recent scholarship and devotional writing that has recovered the untouchable Mary to reappraise her as the first disciple, as conflicted and confronted as subsequent generations of Christians.
The deepest challenge for many churchgoers comes when Tóibín’s Mary discloses that she fled from the Cross just before Jesus had died. This shatters the traditional image of Mary the faithful mother, the mother who endures through the cutting pain of her child’s suffering and death to the bitter end. The theme of stabat mater dolorosa remains – many in the Saturday audience, myself included, shed tears as Mary described what it was actually like to witness the crucifixion – but it is cut through with the betrayal of the mother who leaves to save her own life knowing her son’s will shortly end.
For some Christians, this is where Tóibín goes too far. Doesn’t the inerrant Bible teach that Mary witnessed her son’s death? Actually, strictly speaking, it doesn’t.
The Testament of Mary is heresy only in the ancient sense of the word: choice. It constitutes an open invitation to reimagine Mary and the earliest Christians as humans whose concerns were at once larger and smaller than our own. It is a work of art that is both terrible and beautiful in its commentary on the hatred and love that we unfailing find embedded in all human societies. And it is profoundly theological. The play’s final words confront directly one of the most difficult truths of Christianity – why would God save this?
If I had one criticism of the Sydney Theatre Company’s production, it would be to ask that next time this show is performed, it’s done in a church, and scheduled during Lent. Mary deserves no less.