Mary reveals the cross she must bear
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin. Presented by Malthouse Theatre. Beckett Theatre, Southbank, November 9
“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.
Pamela Rabe has an unforced authenticity as Mary