The Testament of Mary, Barbican, theatre review: 'Fiona Shaw is shatteringly brilliant'

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The posters show Fiona Shaw's Mary muzzled by a crown of thorns. That metaphorical gag is torn away in this beautifully wrought and emotionally devastating solo piece, adapted by Colm Toibin from his Booker Prize-nominated novella.

At the start of Deborah Warner's vivid, piercingly felt production, the audience is invited to go walkabout on stage where designer Tom Pye has arranged an installation of the then-and-now clutter that will feature in the show – from an ominous but surprisingly docile live vulture to sheaves of grubby typescript and coils of barbed wire. 

Encased in a perspex cube, Shaw is the beatific, blue-robed Virgin of traditional iconography, holding a lily and sitting amidst a sea of votive candles.  As the punters gawp and take cellphone photos of her, there's the calculatedly uneasy feel of a holy picture crossed with a fairground attraction about this sealed-off inaudibly muttering figure. 

The woman who emerges in the play proper is as much a modern widow (in her black tunic worn over trousers) as a biblical matron. And the voice that Toibin and Shaw give her mixes grief-stricken anguish and sardonically scathing anger.  

We meet her many years after the crucifixion in her forced exile where she is being pestered by her protectors, two disciples, who press her to tell her story in “sharp, simple patterns” as myth-promoting fodder for the gospels they are writing.  The truth, though – which she pours out to us in this alternative narrative – offers not a speck of comfort or redemption. 

In a performance that astonishes with its soul-baring intensity, Shaw shows you Christ's ministry and harrowing death from the point of view of a sceptical, ferocious flesh-and-blood mother who still rages with lofty scorn for his followers (“misfits”) and who watched the career of this distant, disturbing son with a sense of impotent dread. 

She overturns tables and ladders in her agitation but brilliantly intimates that her chief fury because she was too frightened to stay at the foot of the cross and sneaked away to save her own life before Christ was properly dead.  The pieta, achingly evoked here with a bolt of cloth, is a dream of what never happened.   The resurrection is a tree that sprouts through the floor and then vanishes.

Scorching shame, comically incandescent contempt, tremors of old-age vulnerability, grief so raw that she can't bring herself to name “Jesus”: these elements cascade from Shaw who is in shatteringly brilliant form here. 

Using Mel Mercier's eerily suggestive sound design (horror heightened through slight muffling) and moving shutters that open on to differently coloured skies, Warner's production tightens the screw with masterly stealth. Told that her son came to redeem the world, Shaw's Mary asks with a squawk of withering incredulity “All of it?”. 

The actress's achievement, and Toibin's, is to present a mother who had agonizing reasons for taking refuge in that belief and yet who preferred to remain in “the sharp, cold clarity of day”. 

Christian groups may have picketed the production when it opened on Broadway last year, but anyone who goes to the trouble of actually seeing it will be impressed by its serious imaginative integrity.

To 25 May; 020 7638 8891

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