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Toibin's daring take on the life of Virgin Mary wows critics in US

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Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw

Colm Toibin's play The Testament of Mary opened in New York last week to lavish praise from the critics and a few gasps of surprise from the first-night audience.

With acclaimed actress Fiona Shaw in the title role, the play tells the story of Jesus from his mother Mary's frequently contrary point of view. At the end of the production, Mary strips completely naked on stage – which came as a shock even to the New Yorkers, who like to think they have seen everything.

Among the many celebrities to attend the opening night in New York were Salman Rushdie, Sienna Miller, Carrie Fisher and Chris Rock, as well as the author Colm Toibin.

According to the Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty, "the Virgin Mary isn't looking all that virginal in Colm Toibin's defiantly strange play". The same critic referred to Mary "sucking on a cigarette and swigging from a bottle of spirits" during the play, which opened on Broadway last Monday night.

Reviews in the New York Times, Variety, USA Today and elsewhere were very positive.

"The Testament of Mary belongs to Shaw, one of the most versatile and commanding stage actresses in the English-speaking world. Her voice infuses Toibin's writing with living colour and her emotion forcefully clarifies the point of this risky and very un-Broadway-like theatrical endeavour – to find grace and redemption in the honesty of flesh and blood," said McNulty.

Toibin's play, based on a book of the same name, opened last week in the 1,000-seater Walter Kerr theatre. Angry protest groups with placards denouncing the "blasphemous" play had appeared outside the theatre during the previews but the opening night passed off peacefully.

The average ticket price for the show is $125 and the play will run until June 16, with eight performances a week generating several million dollars in box-office takings – and with only Shaw on stage it could be far more lucrative for Toibin than any of his best-selling novels to date.

The Testament of Mary is set years after the crucifixion and Mary is an older women in exile in Ephesus (now Turkey), being looked after by two men who are trying to shape her story in an approved manner. But she is unco-operative and wants to tell the story as she remembers it. She remains suspicious of the disciples ("a group of misfits") and of the fame that was heaped on her son and she is still devastated by his death.

Mary is a pagan, and unimpressed by the status being given to her son whom she regards as an ordinary man who was exploited for political reasons and paid a terrible price. She thinks most of his followers are unreliable, gullible types who have lost the run of themselves.

The play was staged in Ireland two years ago with the Druid Theatre's Garry Hynes directing Marie Mullen in the role. The Broadway production, however, is a much more complex presentation directed by Deborah Warner.

In the New York production, the audience is invited on stage before the play begins to see a bowed Shaw as Mary, holding flowers, wearing a blue gown and enclosed in a glass box, mirroring a common kind of statue of the Virgin. This image is subverted as the play progresses and by the end, when Shaw appears naked, the image has been stripped bare to reveal the real flesh-and-blood human being that Mary was.

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Although the New York Times critic Ben Brantley praised the play, he thought the staging, including barbed wire and a vulture among many other props, was a bit too busy. "A great actress and a fine, trenchant script are struggling to assert themselves," he wrote, saying that a simpler presentation would have been better. But overall he appreciated this insightful and sympathetic exploration of who Mary really was.

"As written by Mr Toibin, Mary's account of the last years of her son's life is remarkable in how it grounds its familiar tales in the context of the everyday, and particularly in the perspective of a mother who can't understand what her son has become. This Mary is an ordinary woman of her day, forced against her will into a role in history she never sought or wanted," Mr Brantley wrote.


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