The Testament Of Mary

14 November 2017 | 6:04 pm | Maxim Boon

"This is theatre of breathtaking purity, as simple as possible but no simpler."

"Hail Mary, full of grace."

It has been uttered for centuries by countless millions, imploring the mother of Christ to cleanse them of their wrongdoing. But what do we know of this woman, beyond her saintly guise? Could she threaten someone with a knife? Could she deny the resurrection, or pray to heathen gods?

Colm Tóibín imagines Mary in the wake of the crucifixion as she struggles to come to terms with the brutality of her son's death, and the theology powered by it. Here, as we see her through the lens of this devastating bereavement, those anathemas not only seem plausible, but an emotional certainty.

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This is no faultless, ethereal Madonna. Tóibín's earthly Mary is a parent whose grief has curdled into anger and guilt, whose doubts outweigh her faith, whose piety is stained by her many regrets. There is no comfort in accepting that her son's grisly execution was a sacred obligation. She will not be complicit; this was ugly, ungodly torture, not the work of the divine.

Despite its apparently anti-religious subtext, this is not a heretical story, but rather a profoundly human one. And the raw, raging, resilient humanity of Tóibín's Mary could hardly be more expertly rendered than by one of Australia's most accomplished theatre luminaries, Pamela Rabe.

On a sterile, institutional stage, we find her as if in witness protection. The world outside this barren safe house is a dangerous one, but what she knows, or rather what she questions, might be the greatest danger of all. The political is a far more conspicuous presence than the religious. A pair of anonymous evangelists, implicitly drawn with a tinge of Orwellian bureaucracy, are both guardians and captors, determined to coerce their own narratives from their interrogatee's mouth. Or keep her silenced if she refuses to comply.

They will not accept her version of events, yet she must speak this truth aloud, if only to herself, and Rabe's performance exquisitely plays as if to an audience of one. Much like Marg Horwell's set, Rabe is restrained, insular, but filled with focused emotional intent. There is no need for awkward winks to Mary's biblical counterpart, and herein lies Tóibín's brilliance. These wrought, shredded emotions could be those of any parent who has lost a child.

Even when Mary attempts to understand her son's miracles, making the most direct connection to the Gospels, it is done so with anxious hesitation, as if this proof of divinity somehow makes Jesus less her own. The most potent revelations come when Mary recounts her perspective on the crucifixion. The bird's-eye vantage of scripture is replaced by the chaos and horror in the thick of this bloody spectacle, as panic and shame cloud her subjective experience.

Rabe's performance is one of quiet virtuosity, negotiating the superimposition of psychological honesty and Tóibín's sometimes dense language with careful, clever nuance. There's also much in this production that reflects the fruitful collaboration between Rabe and director Anne-Louise Sarks. At every moment, the intimate intensity of Rabe's account is supported by Sark's deft use of the space and other technical elements, creating an uncannily authentic response while leaving nothing to chance. This is theatre of skilled, breathtaking purity, as simple as possible but no simpler. There's no need for gimmicks or sleights of hand; just theatrical craft of the very highest order.

Malthouse Theatre presents The Testament Of Mary until 26 Nov.