Colm Toibin might ruffle Catholic feathers but plays this stark don't come along often
The stage adaptation of Colm Tóibín's 'The Testament of Mary' is unbearably moving at times
I haven't always been the greatest fan of the stage collaborations between the director Deborah Warner and the actress Fiona Shaw. There is no doubt that both of them are highly talented, but they can also be perverse and tiresomely eccentric.
This new production however, based on Colm Tóibín's beautiful and provocative novel that was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, strikes me as a real success – though it will undoubtedly ruffle feathers among devout Christians, especially Catholics.
Like the novel, it is a long monologue delivered by Mary, now living in a place of safety after the crucifixion of her son. We learn that she is regularly visited by a couple of the apostles who want her story to help them write the New Testament.
Mary is suspicious of them, having always regarded Jesus's disciples as cranky misfits and when they tell her that the story of Jesus will change the world she doesn't believe a word of it.
Our first glimpse of Mary is the conventional image of the mother of God in her heavenly robes, encased in a Perspex box.
The audience is invited to wander round Tom Pye's on-stage installation before the main show begins, where we can also see replicas of the Cross and the cruel nails that were driven into Christ's flesh and bones. There is also a beautiful live vulture that patiently allows the audience to ogle him.
Once we are in our seats, Shaw returns, now dressed like an old peasant and intent on telling the truth as she sees it. And if her attitude isn't quite as vehement as the mother in The Life of Brian, who declares "he's not the Messiah he's a very naughty boy", she clearly has great difficulty in believing that the child she bore was the Son of God. What Shaw captures most powerfully is the terrible grief of a mother who has lost her son.
Her detailed description of the cruelty of the crucifixion is almost unbearably moving, and having recounted it, with manifest pain and difficulty, the actress strips off and plunges into a tank of water as if this could somehow erase her terrible memories. A full-frontal view of the naked Mother of Christ might be too much for some. I can only say that in the context of this exceptionally harrowing production it seems both natural and right.
Shaw is magnificent throughout, seeming to tear out her pain from somewhere deep inside her body and soul, but there are flickers of baleful humour as well. And there is an especially potent moment when she fiercely declares: "When you say that he redeemed the world I will say it was not worth it, was not worth it."
Plays as stark and strong as this don't come along very often, and though committed Christians might justifiably baulk at it, this is a work of manifest integrity and a reminder of how lucky we are to live in a free society where deeply felt work like this is neither banned nor, thank God, subject to murderous reprisals. One shudders to think what the response might be were Tóibín to write a similar work about the Prophet Mohammed.
Charles Spencer is the drama critic of the 'Daily Telegraph'. The play is at the The Barbican until May 25; barbican.org.uk