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 was raised Roman Catholic and, she says, portraying Mary has had a strong effect on her. "It frightens me," she says. "It frightens Colm to be writing it. These are sacred texts, so you do feel at the start [that you are] using your secular life to rummage in them. But then I discovered how to be imaginative and true. The prayers of childhood are in your head. I can say them now. But all that can live in one part of your mind, and this in another."

She continues, "Religion is about people. ...I think this story fleshes out the people. So I'm thrilled by it. I wish I had heard this story when I was a child. It's much more exciting than the rather arid liturgy that we were offered in which they were very far away from us, wearing strange, floaty costumes and speaking in a very formal 'thee' and 'thou' language."

Shaw and Warner first worked together in 1988, a quarter century ago. What is it that keeps bringing them back together? "We both are very ambitious for what the theatre is," Shaw says. "We seem to be interested in finding a premise that's quite high, or a subject that's quite big. My imagination is rather free-roaming and sometimes slightly wild. She has this phenomenal capacity to organize extraordinary things. She also has this brilliant ability to allow the ordinary to be poetic. She helps me to hone that, and also to make the poetic ordinary. Which is very important, so people feel they belong to the event. She has a huge visual sense, so I always feel I'm being presented beautifully, so I concentrate on the world of the interior mind, to communicate or make the audience see what I'd like them to see in my mind. And she enhances that."

Shaw and Warner usually hone their work at theatre festivals and elsewhere before bringing it to New York. But Mary is different — the work at Broadway's Walter Kerr is for them a world premiere. Why did they decide to take the big leap here? "There's only two words to answer — Scott Rudin. He is an incredibly brave, artistic man who is a rare producer. He stands remarkably among his generation. He is a Renaissance man who is really putting his powers, his views and his artistic sensibility to very good use. He clearly knows how to make things happen. It's daring and brave. And I suppose all we are doing is agreeing to go along with his daring and to allow Broadway to be a place of experiment and discovery. And I think it's very nice for the New York audience — and we need them to be nice to us — to play along and say, yes, this is a new play, this is a new sort of play, this is a very explosive subject. And you could wait and see if it's a success in Paris and London, or you could dare to do it in the middle of New York. So I'm very excited about that."

What's coming up for Shaw after Mary? "I'm going to direct Benjamin Britten's opera The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne in the autumn." And then, in December, she will perform Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Is there anything she hasn't done onstage that she would still like to do? "I'd like to play Virginia Woolf. And Cleopatra. They're very different people. I like to explore female characters who make the limitations of your life blur because their lives are bigger. That's the great pleasure of playing big, iconic characters. Because you get to see, to pretend, to view, to absorb and to learn about a world beyond your own world. That's the pleasure of it."

She smiles. "And the rest is hard work."

View the Entire Photo Gallery
Fiona Shaw, Colm Tóibín and Deborah Warner
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN, at New 42nd Street Studios