Listening for a voice
By Bradley Storer
In the darkened corner of a modern apartment, a woman in blue is curled up weeping and clenching her fists. A stark blackout, and the same woman stands expressionless and walks into the kitchen to chop vegetables. With this bleak contrast of mourning and domesticity, The Testament of Mary begins to unfold the hidden story of the mother of God.
Colm Toibin’s script, adapted from his own novel of the same name, is certainly evocative, and the passages describing Mary following the trail of Jesus’ march to crucifixion, her vigil and eventual terrified flight from Golgotha are as heart-breaking as they are harrowing. While the aim of the play seems to be to break down our historical and religious pre-conceptions of Mary, in Testament she never emerges as enough of a fully-formed character to do this. In sections describing her situation years after the crucifixion, flashes of a full-blooded Mary emerges – in a poignant description of a chair left eternally empty waiting for its occupant to return, or in her bafflement in dealing with the outlandish declarations of her son’s former followers, we can see her humanity appearing. Once the play moves on to re-telling Jesus’ rise and subsequent downfall, however, Mary becomes a reactionary character with no agency to affect her own fate. She is simply shuffled around according to the actions and desires of other (mostly male) characters, whether it be her mysterious cousin Marcus or Jesus himself, but what Mary herself desires is very rarely evident.
Pamela Rabe works incredibly hard to form a character out of these materials, and the fact that Testament works at all as a dramatic piece can be credited entirely to her as a brilliant actor. The unrelenting darkness and bleakness of Toibin’s writing begins to feel almost monotone as the play goes on, which unfortunately the direction of Anne-Louise Sarks seems unable to combat. The contemporary apartment set by Marg Horwell and Paul Jackson – while maybe intended to divorce the story of its distant historical context – alas adds nothing to the overall meaning. Steve Toulmin’s compositions and sound design, while sometimes overused, add subtle poignancy and gravitas to several key moments.
The Testament of Mary is described as having the goal of ‘to examine how myths are made, and to question who has the power to tell them’ but never offers up a strong enough voice of its own or an alternative to accepted mythology. The key divergence from biblical text, that Jesus was not the son of God, doesn’t feel like enough of a dramatic twist to build the entire plot upon. For a play about the historical silencing of women and the narrative exclusion of the feminine viewpoint, The Testament of Mary feels oddly voiceless.
Dates: 3 – 26th November
Venue: Merlyn Theatre, The Malthouse, 113 Sturt St, Southbank VIC
Times: Tuesday 6:30pm, Wednesday – Saturday 7:30pm, Matinee Saturday 3pm, Sunday 5:30pm.
Prices: $35 – $69
Image by Zan Wimberley