Theatre review – The Testament of Mary: Jesus through a mother’s eyes

2013-09-28 09:50

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Jesus’ mother, Mary, has insomnia. She dare not dream again.

In the opening moments of The Testament of Mary, Patricia Boyer as Mary explains how nothing escapes her – except sleep – as she is trapped in her older years with just her memories and unwelcome visitors who want her to remember the events of her son’s life differently, more clearly, with no uncertainty.

I was brought up as a Christian, so I know all the stories – Lazarus rising from the grave, water being turned into wine, the lame walking and the blind seeing. I was also very traumatised as a child by the deliberate cruelty inherent in the story of the crucifixion of Christ, told in Sunday school with wanton bloodlust.

Listening to a mother’s account of watching that viciousness made my insides roil. A great sign in a play is a visceral reaction and Boyer, directed by Lynne Maree, gets one from her audience.

In traditional accounts of Jesus’ life, his mother is passive, a receptacle of the seed of God, a bystander of a great life. In a time where men dominate history, the stories are told by them, the perspective of wives, mothers, sisters and daughters is not valued and that has largely remained the case in religious doctrine.

In The Testament of Mary she makes her voice heard, she questions her son’s choices, his “misfit” friends, his meddling in matters of life and death.

Her account of the story of Lazarus is mesmerising – she recounts it as it was told to her by a cousin who had heard it from someone who was supposedly there. She tells how bewildered Lazarus was, how terrible the thought of this story being true is – after all, who would ask a man to face death twice?

Her description of the wedding where Jesus turned water into wine is told in minute detail, as he humiliated her there before carrying out one of his famous miracles.

This one-woman play is based on the work of Booker Prize nominated Irish novelist Colm Toibin. It was first adapted for the stage by British actress Fiona Shaw and it garnered a Tony nomination this year, so South African audiences are getting it fresh from Broadway.

Boyer, who won a Naledi Award this year for her fine performance in Sylvaine Strike’s adaptation of The Miser, delivers a powerful monologue.

She moves around the stage, telling her story over days as she gets on with the petty chores of life.

The production design, by Wilhelm Disbergen, captures the time in muted shades, the Roman times are captured in Mary’s cup and jug as well as in her having a bath, from which she emerges naked in the opening moments.

It is a symbolic moment, a cue to the audience that this is a familiar tale told without its usual dress nor from its usual perspective.

It is not an anti-religious rant by any stretch of the imagination, rather it is a familiar story told in a new way that illuminates parts of that story left in shadow for centuries by those who first chose which bits to expose to the light.

The Testament of Mary is what theatre should be, powerfully delivered and thought-provoking.

» The Testament of Mary is on at The Space at the Joburg Theatre Complex until October 6.

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