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

But this Mary's denying these tenets of Christianity has indeed stirred controversy. Picketers greeted the first preview, calling the play "blasphemous" and "heretical." Not so, says Shaw.

The play "is not lampooning" the beliefs, she says. "It's running on a track imaginatively. It's not revisionism." It's not saying that the events of the novel are "what really happened. It's saying, 'Let's pretend this is what really happened.' That's the nature of imagination, literature and theatre. It's saying, 'What if?' There's Shakespeare's great line, there's 'much virtue in if' — if she was there. I think what Colm has discovered is a woman who, if she was there, found it unbearable. And that's a very reasonable notion. Added to which, there's very little about her in the New Testament — either they didn't want her story or it was forgotten, so Colm tells an imaginative version of it."

The New Testament, of course, "continues," no matter what Tóibín has written, she says. "People can go on believing in it, can go on following it. Colm's not trying to say don't follow it. He's saying, what if this story happened? I think it would be naïve for any Catholic or Christian not to realize that the story [of Jesus] has been built, shifted, translated, pushed, pulled over 2,000 years. It was itself a revisionist text. There was probably a much more female church in the early church, but that got absolutely ironed out."

The New Testament, she says, "sits in people's hearts as the fundamental basis from which they can contemplate reality and redemption. And I don't think that the play is trying to counter that. It's about a woman, a mother, who believed her son was her son and could not know that the meaning of his life would be so taken by others, revised and written by others. Which is what happened. She was not there for the Resurrection. Who knows what she thought about it? What was the Resurrection? They saw him. People do see people after they've died. They do feel they've seen them. Ordinary people who are not religious have that experience too."