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

Sunday Times - - NEWS -

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.”


HAUNTED: Pa­tri­cia Boyer as Mary

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