Does The Testament of Mary concern the religious, historical, or literary figure of Mary?
The problem is that Mary is all of those ‘figures', but what she is not and has not been allowed to be is a flesh-and-blood woman – someone who ages, dies, experiences pain, has sex, feels desire, cowardice, regret, rage. Her story has been packaged with a particular agenda from the beginning and over the millennia, its edges have been smoothed over and elevated to mythological proportions. She has become a muse for painting, music, the male gaze and notions of motherhood and womanhood. In doing that, we reduce her to an abstraction and confine her forever to a pedestal from which she can't step down.
A lot of your work for STC has involved directing ensemble productions – Hay Fever, After Dinner, Machinal – but here you’ll be working with just one actor, Alison Whyte. What are you looking forward to about that and does it make a difference?
The obvious difference is the need to find a very strong conviction or purpose for speaking. What's the need to speak? Who are we speaking to and why? The relationship between the performer and the audience becomes paramount in a one woman show. The audience are, in essence, the other character.
The other difference is that there is nowhere to hide. As an actor or as a director that can be terrifying, but also liberating. The actor is carrying the weight of the whole show and that's a work of physical and emotional and mental endurance. There is something powerful about witnessing an actor hold the stage alone for the duration of a work. They need to take the audience on a journey through time and space. They need to people the stage with other characters. And it's the actor's vocal, physical and emotional dexterity that will transport us – it can be totally mesmerising. I love the technical challenge of that.
I’m also a great lover of 'character' so it will be wonderful to spend all that time during rehearsal with just one ‘character' – trying to unlock the woman behind the myth.
Colm Tóibín has spoken of how important Mary was to him, growing up Catholic. Is this a play with a particular resonance for Christians? Or is its reach and impact bigger?
The whole framework for Western liberal democracy has been built around a Christian faith, so whether you are a believer or a non-believer, you can't escape the fact that those stories and that construction of narrative has shaped our psyche as a culture and community.
Mary has been made to represent all that is 'good' about womanhood and motherhood: a symbol of acceptance and submission, of acquiescence, humility and purity. As a woman and as a mother, I rail against that.
But, on a very simple level, it's about the human heart and how it deals with grief and loss. And that is a story for everyone.
The Testament of Mary, 13 Jan – 25 Feb 2017, Wharf 1 Theatre
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