Review: The Testament of Mary

By John Nathan, May 16, 2014

Barbican, London EC2

A curious on-stage installation which the audience is invited to wander around provides an unexpected way into this adaptation of Colm Toíbín's novel about Jesus's mother. Those with a better grasp of the New Testament than I may know the significance of all the artefacts on view - the relevance of the huge iron nails is obvious. And over there, past the real vulture, is Fiona Shaw as Mary dressed in blue robes and in ethereal pose. After the show starts, the next time we see her she's attired like a modern-day arty denizen of Hampstead. And why not? Shaw's Medea (also directed by Deborah Warner) was a modern woman from the suburbs (maybe Hampstead Garden Suburb). Why not her Mary? It all helps to capture the sceptical spirit of Toíbín's book. Mary's account of the events that led to the crucifixion subverts the idea of Mary as passive witness to the execution.

There is nothing here to promote the notion of Jewish complicity in Jesus's death. Rather, Shaw's Mary sardonically undermines Christian precepts that Jesus's suffering will save the world. "All of it?" she asks sarcastically.

This is primarily a mother's view of a son's death. Although the mostly calm Shaw indulges in annoying flashes of furniture-throwing rage, this is as credible and human a version of an oft told story as I've come across.

Last updated: 10:45am, May 16 2014