Mary re­veals the cross she must bear

The Tes­ta­ment of Mary by Colm Toibin. Pre­sented by Malt­house The­atre. Beck­ett The­atre, South­bank, Novem­ber 9

The Australian - - ARTS - CHRIS BOYD

“The past,” Colm Toibin wrote in The Sign of the Cross, “is re­cent, alive, easy to get in touch with.” But in his home town, En­nis­cor­thy, it took the build­ing of a cathe­dral in the mid-1840s to make his­tory “vivid”. Be­fore it, he con­cedes, his peo­ple are “mainly silent”. Toibin’s Booker short­listed novella The Tes­ta­ment of Mary is about the cre­ation of an­other kind of his­tor­i­cal ed­i­fice: one of the four Chris­tian Gospels.

Mary tells of be­ing in­ter­viewed by two of her son’s fol­low­ers. She is a hos­tile and un­co­op­er­a­tive wit­ness. The scribes want a tightly fo­cused ac­count of the cru­ci­fix­ion, sim­ple and pol­ished. Close to death — heavy with guilt and shame — Mary seizes the op­por­tu­nity to give a com­plete ac­count of what she saw, in all its chaotic con­fu­sion. “The truth should be spo­ken at least once in the world.”

Toibin’s stage adap­ta­tion cuts the 30,000-word mono­logue to less than 10,000. But rather than con­cen­trat­ing or dis­till­ing the drama, Toibin merely re­duces the nar­ra­tive thread count.

Po­etry is also sac­ri­ficed. The tum­bling sen­tences of the novella — rem­i­nis­cent of Did­ion and Proust in their brac­ing holdy­our-breath plunges — are shat­tered into jagged, jab­bing shards: “They have gone. Pair of brutes. They watch me.”

Around the time of the play’s bru­tally cur­tailed Broad­way sea­son, Toibin de­scribed the­atre as a crude art form. It need not be. Pamela Rabe’s solo per­for­mance is con­clu­sive proof of that. There is an ex­tra­or­di­nary clar­ity in Rabe’s act­ing, a cool and un­forced au­then­tic­ity. With­out tricks or short­cuts — and, in­deed, with­out re­peat­ing any­thing she’s done be­fore — Rabe steps into the char­ac­ter as if she were step­ping into a pro­jec­tion of her­self.

At the risk of sound­ing glib, the one sig­nif­i­cant crit­i­cism one can make about Anne-Louise Sarks’s pro­duc­tion is that it stages the play rather than the novella. Rightly or wrongly, the pro- duc­tion es­chews the com­plex­ity and nu­ance of the novella just as the bib­li­cal au­thors es­chew the shock­ing de­tail of Mary’s tes­ta­ment.

Much is made in the novella about the rich­ness and am­bi­gu­ity of the light in the short­en­ing days, both of au­tumn and of Mary’s life. Paul Jack­son opts for semi dark­ness (sug­gested by the script) and in­glo­ri­ous flu­o­res­cent light­ing. There is a shiv­er­ing clar­ity in the orig­i­nal; here, though, truth is merely ugly.

Steve Toul­min uses breathy strings and shim­mer­ing choir ef­fects in his score, the lat­ter rem­i­nis­cent of Arvo Part. In a con­tem­po­rary stag­ing — clean lines and raked shad­ows — Toul­min’s mu­sic is the one de­lib­er­ate nod to­wards the nu­mi­nous. Tick­ets: $69. Book­ings: (03) 9685 5111 or on­line. Du­ra­tion: 75min, no in­ter­val. Un­til Novem­ber 26.

PIA JOHN­SON

Pamela Rabe has an un­forced au­then­tic­ity as Mary

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