Learning to speak for the silent mother of Jesus
Award-winning actress tells Robyn Sassen of the challenge of getting to grips with her Bible character
ACTRESSES are renowned for declaring the role they are currently preparing for to be the most challenging of their careers, but in Patricia Boyer’s case it is hardly an exaggeration.
From Wednesday at the Joburg Theatre, she stars as Mary, mother of Jesus, in The Testament of Mary by Irish writer and threetime Booker prize-nominee Colm Tóibín.
Boyer thumps a copy of the New Testament on the table. “It’s vague about Mary generally. She does not speak.” Cigarette in her hand, she rifles business-like through the pages, revealing heavily highlighted and underlined bits of text. “It’s only in Luke that she is allowed to speak in very controlled and contrived terms.”
The Testament of Mary has had many tongues wagging. It probes Mary’s personal perspectives in the matter of raising Lazarus from the dead, of understanding her son to be a miracle worker and of him being crucified. It reveals her as a woman who shies from attention, one who considered her son a misguided rabble-rouser. And she mourns his loss with the rawness of any mother who loses a child.
“There are three versions of the work,” says Boyer, “a play, a novella and a working script. We were granted rights to work with all three. We’ve been given carte blanche.”
The play was being performed on Broadway when the Yellow Bunny Productions team started working on getting production rights to stage it in South Africa.
Boyer is direct: “I’m a 47-yearold woman. I’m not pretending to be anything other than this. It is quite conceivable that Mary was 13 when she gave birth to Jesus. The play’s directions begin: ‘A woman. Now.’ That is how I play her.
“Doing this play is important to me. I went to a convent. I fled in horror from the petty values perpetuated between those walls. When I think of the Bible, I think of that convent.
“We had to do confession every Friday. What kinds of sins could these little girls in their little outfits be guilty of?” She rolls her eyes. “It was almost pornographic.”
But she is not coming to the play with a lack of sympathy for arguably the greatest story in the world. “She is haunted,” she says, referring to Mary. “You get this pretty picture-book understanding of the crucifixion, but it is horrific. This play engages very directly with the horror of a woman losing her son in the most catastrophic and devastating way imaginable. It touches brazenly on who was Jesus.”
Boyer salutes the bravery of production designer Wilhelm Disbergen and director Lynne Maree in collaborating on this. “Wilhelm politely sent me a message after The Miser [a multi-awardwinning production staged at the Market and Baxter theatres] to say he’d loved my work. I did not know him at the time.” (Boyer’s two roles in this 17th-century play by French playwright Moliere, directed by Sylvaine Strike, won her a Naledi Award for best supporting actress this year.)
“Then he in boxed me
This play engages very directly with the horror of a woman losing her son in the most catastrophic and devastating way
this play, asking me politely if I’d be interested.”
The play has proved a keg of dynamite for Boyer, who has performed with the best of the best all over the world, including award-winning British director Sean Matthias, British director Deborah Warner, Irish actress Fiona Shaw, best known for her role as Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter films, and South African-born actress Dame Janet Suzman.
“My duty as a storyteller is that I have to look into everyone’s eyes and I have to take them with me on this journey.
“My first allegiance is to the text. Working on a play like this is like making a soufflé. I don’t open the oven until it is ready.”
And the magic ingredient? “Trust. I’ve worked with many directors. But I am an artist myself; without trust from director and performer, it would be like approaching a soufflé with a hammer and creating a terrible thing.”