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Theatre Reviews Soulpepper breathes new life into controversial Colm Toibin play

Nancy Palk in The Testament of Mary at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto.

Cylla von Tiedemann

3 out of 4 stars

Title
The Testament of Mary
Written by
Colm Toibin
Genre
Play
Directed by
Aaron Willis
Actors
Nancy Palk
Venue
Young Centre for the Performing Arts
City
Toronto
Year
2016
Runs Until
Saturday, June 18, 2016

How do you solve a problem like Mary?

For thousands of years, the mother of Jesus has remained all but silent, a selfless mother come to us through countless museum portraits as a beatific icon radiating blessedness at having been chosen God's handmaid and vessel. So when the novelist Colm Toibin set out to give her voice – and, worse for ardent Catholics, had her dismiss her son's holiness and express disdain for his disciples and their myth-making – the protests naturally followed.

One Catholic critic, regarding Toibin's 2012 Man Booker-nominated novella The Testament of Mary, called the work "a by-the-numbers hatchet job written in sensitive, spare and poetic diction for the delectation of U.K. and New York Chattering Classes and dipped in a bath of relentless, willful sadness and bitterness." (He also called Toibin an "ex-Catholic homosexual," so consider yourself warned, I suppose.) The next year, when Toibin reworked the piece as a monologue for the esteemed actress Fiona Shaw, the devout turned out to stand behind a barricade across from New York's Walter Kerr Theatre, lugging war banners and rosaries and Madonna statuary, and decrying "blasphemy on Broadway."

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But in finally appearing in the flesh, onstage, to offer her own version of the enigmatic events that defined her life, Mary faced artistic hurdles as well as political ones. The urge to smash the icon was clear: On Broadway, audience members were invited up onstage before the performance, where Shaw sat encased in a museum vitrine, a Mary at once both human and untouchably remote. But Deborah Warner's direction, which included a scene of Mary stripped bare, was panned for being too busy by half, and the show closed quickly, leaving admirers of Toibin's work to wonder if an acclaimed 2013 audio recording of the book by Meryl Streep might not in fact be its optimal mode: No need, in that case, to resolve the questions about what style of dress, movement, set, soundscape might best suit Toibin's work.

How invigorating, then, to experience Soulpepper's new production of the play, which opened Tuesday in Toronto: To hear the words resonate in a theatre space, to listen to an audience laugh at Mary's wry and sometimes playful cynicism, to be walloped by a mother's anguish crossing her face. If the director Aaron Willis hasn't created an entirely cohesive work, he and Nancy Palk, who plays Mary as an insightful, inconsolable and justifiably angry woman, have made a compelling argument for Toibin's unholy fan fiction to live in the theatre.

Palk comes to us like a ghost at first, her voice echoing as if in a cave. Like a discoloured Renaissance painting that seeks a gentle sponge to reveal its bright hues, she is hazy from age and the effects of other's breath. But as she tells of the pair of relentless men who have been visiting her lately to write down her recollections, she begins to sound like any contemporary mother grappling with the loss of a child. She gets pleasure from thwarting their questions, is aghast at their aspirations.

For us, she traces her son's path from confident young man to prophet, remembering how she dismissed his followers as "misfits," and notes how unnerved she was when she heard him speak to them, "his voice all false, his tone all stilted." He did not sound like her son, and who knows a man better than his own mother? She longs to reclaim his childhood, when he was just her boy with the shy smile. She luxuriates in the memories of the moments after his bath, the silence of the Sabbath, the simplicity of their family life.

Like a good journalist, Mary seeks the truth, finding pain rather than comfort in the stories that have built up around her son from half-remembered dreams. She questions her friends Mary and Martha about the death and resurrection of their brother Lazarus, recalls the wedding at Cana when her son greeted her like a stranger before apparently transforming water into wine, wonders about that tale of her son walking on water. And she wrestles with the guilt that still haunts her for abandoning her son out of fear for her own life, some 20 years earlier, as he was dying on the cross.

In the official version of events, of course, she was there through it all, easing his way into the next world. But here, she says that story, like others, came from a dream she had. (And don't even ask about the virgin birth.) No matter the truth of events, she is resolute about this: "It was not worth it." The world may have gained a saviour, but she lost a son. Surely we can appreciate that.

The Testament of Mary continues to June 18 (soulpepper.ca).

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