Theater
12:01 am
Mon April 1, 2013

'Testament Of Mary': A Familiar Mother, In First Person

Originally published on Fri March 29, 2013 6:55 pm

How do you play a character who's been depicted more than nearly any other character in all of Western civilization?

That's the challenge currently facing Irish actress Fiona Shaw, who in the past has played such well-known fictional characters as Harry Potter's Petunia Dursley and Marnie Stonebrook on HBO's True Blood -- not to mention titanic classical roles from Euripides' Medea to Shakespeare's Richard II.

But Shaw's role as the Virgin Mary in Colm Toibin's stage adaptation of his novella, The Testament of Mary, is a different kind of familiar. The actress talked with NPR's Robert Siegel about being alone on stage, her vulture co-star, and what it's like to play the most famous — and most misunderstood — mother of all time.


Interview Highlights

On playing a well-known figure such as Mary

"Well, I think the world can relate to her because she's so known. And you know, like all great symbols, she has to carry all the meanings and all the desires and all the needs that anybody might want to put on her. So I can only offer my version, helped by Colm's writing. I'm not trying to pretend to be all the versions — just one."

On how this role moves Mary from the sidelines to center stage

"She's very little in the New Testament, you know; she hardly ever speaks, twice or three times. So they've definitely kept her in a background role. And Colm seems to have thrown a spotlight on her and sort of filled in, in a way, and he's diverted a bit from the Testament of the Apostles. But he has moved [the focus] fundamentally; it's a story of a mother whose son heads to terrible destruction, and her having to witness the destruction of her son — which is very painful, and in that way it's very like many modern women who may be the mothers of soldiers, or the mothers of revolutionaries. It's [there] really, I think, where the connection lies."

On Mary's version of the life of Jesus

"The premise of the play is that these guys [the Apostles] want to write the story of what had happened some years earlier and to make it global. And to proselytize a religion based on the death of this man. And she has a story to tell, and she says to them very forcibly that she is a witness. But of course, Colm has taken the story and diverted it slightly; she has witnessed it, she didn't like what she witnessed, she was frightened of her son's — the crowds that he began to gather. And she really found it hard to believe that he could work miracles. She just feels he's endangering himself with every big grand gesture that he seems to be associated with.

"And what's very good about this, is it becomes then a very sad meditation on the crucifixion, as she has to watch her son go through that torture. But you also get a sense that she wants her son back; she wants him to be her son. I think that's very understandable. She doesn't want him to be a big star in the world."

On performing a play completely alone

"I am [alone], sadly. Except for a vulture — there's a vulture in the show, and that's very exciting. There's a live vulture, but he's my only cast member. ... There's much talk of the small rabbits, but we didn't feel we could have a vulture and rabbits at the same time.

"It's terrifying, it's lonely. I'm directed by a great friend, Deborah Warner, and so she's at the other end of the show. So at least I can talk to her afterward and say, 'How did it go?' But on the stage alone, I suppose what happens is, I feel I'm surfing the story with the audience. Most of the audience, whatever their religious denomination, have some sense of Renaissance art and those paintings of crucifixions, so nearly everyone has some access to it. And then I tell this particular story, and I follow it as I'm in it, and the audience follow it with me. So I do feel a great communion, dare I say, with the audience. Which is a very good way of not feeling so lonely."

On how the play would be different with more characters

"I think what would happen if you did — and it's a very good question — you would have these two men, and it would become a sort of theological battle. But it isn't that; it's much more that she wants to describe her terror on that day that she saw him being crucified. And the details of it included watching a man feeding rabbits to a bird, and watching people cooking food on fires, and watching horses being shod.

"And it's psychologically very good about the tiny details that people find — the comforts they find at funerals, or after the death of someone, or in a hospital — those things that people very rarely share because they're frightened that they seem to be unconcentrated. In fact, everybody's mind seeks a way out when what they're looking at is too unbearable, and it's very true to the psychology of that, I think. And I think if you had two men in the room with her, they would just be hammering on about some truth about the New Testament. So I think in that way, it allows it be more emotional, I suppose."

Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary is currently playing in previews at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York City. It opens officially on April 22.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. How do you play a character on stage, whom your audience has seen depicted more than nearly any other character in all of Western civilization? Well, that's a challenge currently facing the Irish actress Fiona Shaw, who in the past has played a pretty well-known figure from fiction, Petunia Dursley in the "Harry Potter" films. She was also Marnie Stonebrook in the HBO series "True Blood." But her current role on Broadway goes way beyond that.

She's playing Mary in "The Testament of Mary," Mary as in the mother of Jesus. This is the stage adaptation of Colm Toibin's novella, which, in fact, he first wrote as a monologue. So it's back on stage where its life began. It's in previews in New York City, and that's where Fiona Shaw joins us from. Hi. Welcome to the program.

FIONA SHAW: Hello. Hello.

SIEGEL: And tell us about your character, Mary, her situation and how you relate to this character.

SHAW: Well, I think, as you've just said, the world can relate to her because she's so known. And, you know, like all great symbols, she has to carry all the meanings and all the desires and all the needs that anybody might want to put on her. So I can only offer my version, helped by Colm's writing. And I'm not trying to pretend to be all the versions, just one.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: But one could see Mary as the original supporting character, that is, she is defined in terms of her relation to Jesus.

SHAW: She's very little in the New Testament. You know, she hardly ever speaks, twice or three times. So they've definitely kept her in a background role. And Colm seems to have thrown a spotlight on her and sort of filled in, in a way, and he's diverted a bit from the Testament of the Apostles. But he has moved - fundamentally, it's a story of a mother whose son, of course, heads to terrible destruction and her having to witness the destruction of her son, which is very painful, and in that way, it's very like many modern women who may be the mothers of soldiers or the mothers of, you know, revolutionaries. It's there, really, is where the connection lies, I think.

SIEGEL: The play is set several years after the crucifixion...

SHAW: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...and Mary is not exactly on board with the version of Jesus' life that his disciples, among them her minders, are busily assembling.

SHAW: Yes. The premise of the play is that these guys want to write the story of what had happened some years earlier and to make it global and to make it - to proselytize a religion based on the death of this man. And she has a story to tell, and she says to them very forcibly that she is a witness. But, of course, Colm has taken the story and diverted it slightly. She has witnessed it, she didn't like what she witnessed, she was frightened of her son's - the crowds that he began to gather. And she really found it hard to believe that he could work miracles. She just feels he's endangering himself with every big grand gesture that he seems to be associated with.

And what's very good about this is that it becomes then a very sad meditation on the crucifixion, as she has to watch her son go through that torture. But you also get a sense that she and, you know, she wants her son back. She wants him to be her son. I think that's very understandable. She doesn't want him to be a big star in the world.

SIEGEL: I wonder, Fiona Shaw, if you could read to us a part of "The Testament of Mary." What - and you can describe to us what part you read.

SHAW: Well, there's wonderful sections, you know, of miracles, and it's very fascinating the way in which she describes the wedding feast in Canaan, et cetera. And then halfway through the evening just before, of course, the famous events that are being celebrated on Good Friday and in this story, her cousin or so-called cousin who's a sort of betraying character called Marcus comes to tell her the bad news about her son's fate. And this is the section.

(Reading) Where is my son? Close to Jerusalem. The site for the crucifixion has been chosen. It will be near the city. I had seen a crucifixion once carried out by the Romans on one of their own. It stayed with me, the sight in the distance, the unspeakable image, the vast fierce cruelty of it. But I did not know precisely how the victim died or how long it took. I found myself asking Marcus how long a crucifixion takes as if it was something ordinary. He replied, days maybe, but sometimes hours. It depends. On what? Don't ask, he said. It's better if you don't ask.

SIEGEL: Perhaps it's just the accent, but I can't help but think of some IRA leader who's...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...been turned in by his mother's cousin who knows he's working with the RUC, you know?

SHAW: I think it's - you're right and probably, you know, further afield than that. In the English-speaking world, that's right. And I think that perhaps also it goes towards the Middle East. But there's also something very unsentimental about the relationship of that mother and son, which is a very, I think, Colm catches that from Ireland, and the complexity of the bond pitting the mother and son is not in any way about being fooled by the son. The bond is just fundamental DNA, blood, bone, love. You know, it's real deep, deep love.

SIEGEL: You're alone on stage throughout this.

SHAW: I am, sadly...

(LAUGHTER)

SHAW: ...except for a vulture. There's a vulture in the show, and that's very exciting. There's a live vulture, but apart - he's my only cast member.

SIEGEL: Are there small rabbits as well?

(LAUGHTER)

SHAW: There's much talk of the small rabbits, but we didn't feel we could have a vulture and rabbits at the same time.

SIEGEL: I'm glad to hear that. How different is it to have to hold the stage on your own in a single-character play from interacting with other actors on stage?

SHAW: It's terrifying. It's lonely. I'm directed by a great friend, Deborah Warner, and so she's at the other end of the show. So at least I can talk to her afterwards and say, how did it go? But on the stage alone, I suppose what happens is I feel I'm surfing the story with the audience. Most of the audience, whatever their religious denomination, have some sense of Renaissance art and those paintings of crucifixions, so nearly everyone has some access to it. And then I tell this particular story, and I follow it as I'm in it, and the audience follow it with me. So I do feel a great communion, dare I say, with the audience, which is a very good way of not feeling so lonely.

SIEGEL: But if there were - if there were actors - if Mary's minders had lines, for example, you would have a different feel in you. It would feel more as though there were an invisible wall between you and the audience, and they're watching you interact with other people.

SHAW: I think what would happen if you did - and it's a very good question - you would have these two men, and it would become a sort of theological battle. But it isn't that. It's much more that she wants to describe her terror on that day that she saw him being crucified. And that she - the details of it included watching a man feeding rabbits to a bird and watching people, you know, cooking food on fires and watching horses being shod. And it's psychologically very good about the tiny details that people find - the comforts they find at funerals or after the death of someone or in a hospital, those things that people very rarely share because they're frightened that they seem to be unconcentrated.

In fact, everybody's mind seeks a way out when what they're looking at is too unbearable, and it's very true to the psychology of that, I think. And I think if you had two men in the room with her, they would just be hammering on about some truth about the New Testament. So I think in that way, it allows it to be more emotional, I suppose.

SIEGEL: Well, Fiona Shaw, thank you very much for coming into the studio...

SHAW: Thank you, Robert, very much.

SIEGEL: ...in New York to talk with us about your role in "The Testament of Mary." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.