Fiona Shaw Talks About Playing an Iconic Woman in The Testament of Mary

By Mervyn Rothstein
31 Mar 2013

Shaw in rehearsal
Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Shaw says she was "excited about the play from early on, because I'd heard that Colm had written this piece and that he had me in mind. That's not just flattering — it means that you feel you're connected to the thing." At the same time, though, she felt "daunted. Mary is an icon, and a symbol," who "has probably been filtered in our lives through Renaissance paintings and childhood religion. She's a very distant figure. But this novel maps out a landscape in which this woman has to cope with her son's self-destruction," to try to understand the reasons for his death, "which is agony for her."

This Mary is living away from Jerusalem, some years after Jesus' crucifixion, in the major Roman city of Ephesus, in what is now Turkey — "she lived out her days in a distant place away from home," Shaw says. "She is in exile."

But, Shaw says, "theatre is an imaginative frame, so the play takes place now. The story is in many people's minds now — 2,000 years after the events, the story continues. And like all stories, it has embellishments — different colors, different aspects. So it is going on now. I went last week to see the Piero Della Francesa exhibit at the Frick Collection. In the 15th century, they painted the Virgin as a 15th-century woman. So in this play, you meet her as a 21st-century mother. But the events refer to a time when the Romans did crucify their dissidents."

And this Mary controversially rejects the idea, pushed on her by her son's followers, that her son was the Son of God, and that he died to save the world.

"In Colm's story," Shaw says, "she dwells on her memory of the event. Her argument is, no one wants to hear her memory of the event because it doesn't coincide with the elevated memory his followers would like her to have." The differences are "probably true of all memory, of all people's stories, even of families. People in families have different memories of their childhoods — some say it was a happy house, some say it wasn't."