Breathing life into a statue: Fiona Shaw as Mary, Mother of God

The Testament of Mary – Barbican Theatre, until 25 May 2014

The Testament of Mary opens with a quite remarkable image that captures in tableau the vision of the director, Deborah Warner, the mesmeric focus of Fiona Shaw and the inspiration of set-designer Tom Pye; Fiona Shaw’s Mary is in her most recognisable garb, portrayed as a Raphaelite Madonna, but the seemingly tranquil pose is undercut a furious muttering, is it a liturgy or is it something more, which suggests that all may not be as it seems.

Shaw’s Mary presented in a Perspex box with the audience invited on stage to gawp at the figure within; this image hints not just towards Mary as one of art’s most famous faces but also towards the public spectacle of MaryMary as a carnival attraction, the figure of endless fascination.

There is something grotesque about the scene and it is hard not to think of visitors to P.T Barnum’s famous circus. The voyeuristic aspect is brought home by the vulture that sits and watches proceedings and reflects both on the way that the acolytes would feast upon Jesus’ legacy after his death and the role that we continue to play as audience members.

So begins this brilliant adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novella that consists of a monologue from Mary reflecting upon her son and the events leading up to his death. Tóibín gives voice to Mary and presents a human relationship that deftly prizes open the centuries old fallacy presented by the Christian church of Mary as a form of virginal purity; this Mary is a mother, not just in name but also in deed.

Crown of thornsShaw embodies this earthy, human Mary. She is raw, alive and mourning the loss of Jesus as only a mother can. There is a humour amid her grief, thick and black, as she considers the impact her son had on others. Her Mary is Irish, this is both important and unimportant; what nationality should she be? She could be from anywhere but in making her Irish Shaw finds a folksy grounding and enables access to a natural informality in dialogue that can both raise the everyday to the state of the miraculous whilst grounding the miraculous in the everyday.

Running through the play is a strong feminist undercurrent that gives voice and power to the women in Jesus’ life. Advertising the play is an image of Mary gagged by a crown of thorns. It is a heavily symbolic image and suggests the fact that Mary, as woman and mother, is isolated in the aftermath of the crucifixion by those creating the mythology. One could argue that Shaw’s Mary is outlandishly modern but this critique seems misplaced, this is not being presented as history but as fable. Mary’s modernity is only as misplaced as the existence of miracles that she is so sceptical of.

Shaw’s Mary is no true believer – time and again we are pulled back to the central mother-son dynamic and, like many mothers, she cannot bring herself to trust her son’s friends and the actions that the ascribe to him. Her outsider status gives her an angle on to the famous miracles. The Lazarus myth is skewered quite brilliantly and demonstrates the horror that might accompany bringing someone back from dead. She is able to delve into the darkness of the story and the Lazarus that returns is closer to a zombie, reduced to wandering in a near-fugue state or sitting alone halfway between one world and the next.

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Watch the trailer

<p><a href=”″>The Testament of Mary – Trailer</a> from <a href=””>Barbican Centre</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>


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Sheridan meets Brecht: when legends collide

School for Scandal – Barbican Theatre, 14 June 2011

There isn’t much left to write about the Deborah Warner directed School for Scandal currently playing at the Barbican. An award-winning director who was most recently seen at the National with a stellar production of Mother Courage and Her Children, Warner’s original take on Sheridan’s 18th century classic became the rather surprising subject of unusually intense critical debate, before descending into a rather indecorous war of words between Warner and the theatre critics, Michael Billington and Charles Spencer.

The production demonstrates fairly conclusively that Sheridan’s restoration comedy continues to withstand the test of time. A sparklingly witty acidic comedy, the dense wordplay maybe be occasionally hard to follow for modern audiences but taking the time to really listen is more than worthwhile, with a script packed with lines biting enough to make you think of an 18th century Thick of It. The cast do fine work with the material. Alan Howard as Sir Peter Teazle is first rate, finding the perfect blend of genuine compassion mixed with the kind of grumpiness evident in older men who find themselves in a fractious relationship with a younger wife. It is interesting to watch Howard and remember back to a time in the 1970’s when he was one of the coming men of the stage, running through the repertoire of romantic leads for the RSC. Matilda Ziegler’s Lady Sneerwell and Vicki Pepperdine as the irrepressible Mrs Candour are both excellent and wring the maximum amount of humour out of two of the funniest roles in the play.

Leo Bill, playing Charles Surface as a trustifarian with a, very deeply hidden, moral centre, is entirely convincing. A bundle of nervous energy, constantly on the move, Bill injects some much needed pace into a play that, while constantly zipping along and never feeling flabby, is still a three hour haul.

However fans of Sheridan maybe scratching their heads at the description of Charles Surface as a trustifarian and this is where problems in the production begin to arise. The criticisms of Warner’s production have focused on the modern flourishes that have been brought to the play and a certain irritation that parallels with society today were being, in some cases literally, clearly signposted for the audience. Continue reading here

When critics go to war

Ding, ding seconds out. The gloves are well and truly off in a good old fashioned spat playing out in the funny pages between two men who represent the ancien regieme of theatre criticisms and an award-winning director with a reputation for bold reinventions of the classics.

In the blue corner are those two critics who embody the establishment and who might require dynamite to remove them from their seats of power; Michael Billington of the Guardian and Charles Spencer of the Telegraph.

And in the red corner is one of the mostly highly regarded female directors, who has put on versions of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Brech and is a twice winner of the Olivier Award for Best Director.

Round 1:

Deborah Warner’s latest production opens to distinctly mediocre reviews across the board. There is general frustration at the need to update a play that is regarded as one of Britain’s finest comedies. Charles Spencer goes to town, calling it inept and awful and finishing off by announcing that Warner should be served with a theatrical equivalent of an asbo.

Round 2:

Warner responds to Spencer in a Guardian comment piece. She argues that plays are meant for updating and that there is no problem by placing it overtly in a modern setting so that they can appeal to new audiences. However critics are to stuck with their preconceived notions of what these plays should be and, with their pining for the past, can be held culpable for stopping a different audience from embracing the theatre.

Round 3: 

Billington counter-punches by tartly claiming that some plays work with updating and some do not. Moreover it is incredibly patronising to suggest that younger people require a play to be updated for it to be a success; they may be perfectly capable of making the leaps of imagination required.

Round 4:

Determined not to let sleeping dogs lie, Deborah Warner refers to the two critics as two complacent toads crouching on their nest. This vivid image conjures up pictures far to horrible to contemplate but it is fair to say that the exchange hit a nerve or two.

Round 5:

Spencer gets in the last word so far, outlining the Telegraph some of the reasons that he has managed to get so far under Warner’s skin. Apparently, like all good feuds, this goes far back into the mists of time. Spencer had taken exception with the casting of a women as Richard II and panned the production as a result. However it seems that Warner has never taken criticism lightly and like all good thespians, she consulted Shakespeare until she found the perfect expression: Patience is stale and I weary of it. Unfortunately she hadn’t counted on Spencer to return the compliment in kind with Things past redress are now with me past care. It seems relations, and possibly reviews, have soured since then.

Are there lessons to be learned from all this?

Never fight critics on their own patch – seriously do you expect to win a war of words played out in the broadsheets? Clearly someone has never read The Art of War? If you must fight, and fighting should always be a last resort, then always ensure you do so on terms that favour you. How about the next production being Throne of Blood, and how about making audience participation this time?