10 May 2014

The Testament of Mary at the Barbican was engagingly weird

The Testament of Mary was always going to be an unusual theatrical experience, and so it proved to be.

It told the story of Jesus from the perspective of his mother who is far more concerned about his pain and her loss than any thoughts on his possible divinity.

A Biblical story would not normally get my attention but this was a one woman show and that one woman was Fiona Shaw. She had been magnificent in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at The Old Vic Tunnels in 2013 and that was what made me want to see this.

The Barbican Theatre is nothing like as intimate as the (sadly missed) Old Vic Tunnels were I was able to see Fiona from the comfort of wooden box on the stage so I avoided a stalls seat and went for the usual front row of the Upper Circle where seat A25 (£25) gave me a good central view of the whole stage.

The weirdness started early.

The audience was allowed to stroll on to the stage to examine the set. Then Fiona, dressed as the Virgin Mary, was dropped David Blaine-like in to a glass box and sat motionless. Then the box was lifted out of the way and Fiona was left there among the audience. After a while the audience were asked to leave and some were given candles as they did so. Fiona ran off stage.

The show started for real with Fiona returning to the stage in normal casual clothes.

For the next eighty minutes she gave us a mother's view of a son who got involved with some strange men and then came to a brutal end. It was a passionate and human tale with some touches of humour.

Fiona moved around the stage energetically and sometimes a little violently, e.g. throwing chairs across the room. A couple of times I thought that the violence was stronger than the words justified but it was only a couple of times and did not seriously detract from the story.

The most shocking scene was when Fiona stripped off to drench herself in water. Whether I thought of it as Mary or Fiona sitting naked on the stage it was still a shock and I am not sure what purpose it served. The baptism symbolism was obvious and she could have done that in a costume.

Despite the weirdness, the strength of the story won through and The Testament of Mary was an engaging and gripping piece of theatre.

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