PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Testament of Mary—At Long Last, Her Side of the Story

By Harry Haun
23 Apr 2013

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Fiona Shaw
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Our first view of her is Mary-under-glass, and audiences are invited to file by one at a time to see Shaw puttering about mundanely inside a glass cage. When all return to their seats, the cage slowly rises, and the actress, simply attired in a schmatta of mourning black, strolls regally off stage—oh, with a flighty vulture on her arm.

When she returns to the stage, the games begin—finding fresh, contemporary ways of reciting a numbingly familiar story. Taking it from a mother's perspective almost makes it The Greatest Story Never Told—never till now. And now that it can be told, Shaw tells all, and, in one instance, bares all, in her all-stops-out fashion.

"There are lines I thought would be said in one way, and Fiona is managing to say them in about three ways," said author Toibin with awe that seems quite authentic. "She has found a dominant way, and, under that, she has found levels of ambiguity in a tiny thing she can do with her hand, with her eyes or, in the voice, up or down.

"In a way, when you're writing, all you can do is try and create sentences or images that are open to that rather than ones that you know how they should be performed, so I'm being surprised—I mean, I'm being really surprised—and what's surprising isn't that she's finding a single way to do what I wrote that's different from what I've imagined but she's finding a number of ways. Within each moment, she's capturing pain, almost humor, and then off she goes, building up and down. You're seeing a pure vulnerability at work as well as a pure power. Now that is an amazingly difficult thing to do. It's in the writing, but only in the way that the writing's open. I didn't think of that sometimes when I'm writing a sentence—that it could be interpreted in both of those ways by some movement or some inflection of the voice. You can't really put in those gradations. All you can do is leave them open enough."

He apparently left it open wide enough that the Outer Critics Circle count it one of the Best Plays of the year, and not just a vehicle for an extraordinary actress.

But make no mistake about it: that's how Testament took off. "I was thinking about an actress such as Fiona, who needs those great parts like Medea and Electra and Mother Courage and Hedda Gabler. Shakespeare wrote very few of them—perhaps Gertrude, maybe Hermione—then it struck me in one second: there is an interesting one—the voice of Mary. If the voice of Mary could be re-created and that story could be told from her point of view, you could actually do a great part for a great actress."