Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Testament of Mary - what would history written by women read like?

I've just seen Colm Toibin's 'The Testament of Mary' on stage, with Fiona Shaw in the title role speaking, and roaming, alone on a sparse set for 80 mesmerising minutes.

I don't feel for a second that I can do the play justice with a few words on this blog. Even proper, professional reviewers from the Guardian and the Telegraph are almost left choking with admiration and wonder.

Shaw's performance alone is something I will probably never forget. She is one of those amazing actors (Mark Rylance also springs to mind, Kenneth Branagh used to be one) who could be reading out her shopping list and infuse it with enough rage, tenderness, sarcasm and despair that you'd be never again be able to look at a box of Rice Crispies, say, or a jar of Marmite, without a shudder of longing and regret.

Put Fiona Shaw in the role of a grieving, raging not-such-a-virgin-after-all-Mary, reviewing the events leading to her son's senseless death and her desolate exile, almost a hostage to eager myth-makers urging her to sign up to a particular version of the past, and you get a masterpiece.

The play asks (surprisingly current) timeless questions and does so with the energy, rage and resigned wit of everywoman, history's invisible protagonist, handmaiden of all that is, witness to all of it, in charge of none if it, anywhere, ever.

What if, the play teases us, history were written by women?  And what if the women allowed to write it didn't care about power and glory, about miracles and epoch changing events or at least did not use the metric men use to categorise their importance? 

What if they cared instead about their loved ones- particularly the children pushed out with great pain into the world and made of their very flesh and blood? What if their priority was see those children, ordinary or exceptional that they may be- in fact exceptional and unique only to them- to be allowed to live, to be and eventually to die, not for a god or a cause, a leader or an idea but because their time on earth was over? 

What if wars accounts were recorded not by the generals or even the soldiers but by the mothers asked to swallow the latest cynical lie about their children's sacrifice being necessary, inevitable heroic? 


What if the costs were counted, not just the gains, the numbers left behind, not just the distance covered, the graves, not just the triumphal arches, the daring towers?


"He's changed the world!" Mary is told, time and again, about her son's life and his horrific death. "What, the whole world?" she quips, almost with a sneer. If it were possible to sneer resignedly, Fiona Shaw could convey it.


She is every Bosnian Serb pushing her toddlers onto of the last crowded coach out of the village under siege, her teenage sons already dead in a ditch; she is every Syrian woman who's trying to keep her starving family alive in Homs or Aleppo, her children bombed and gassed, her teenage sons heading for ambiguous martyrdom.  

She is the mother of all the Malalas who would be killed if a bullet hit them in the head, end of story, with no chance to speak our and to be heard. She is the great philosopher's daughter who spends her life fetching the water from the well, never asked what she thinks; she is the princess promised for marriage in infancy to some foreign chinless wonder so that two countries may briefly not be a war, or more easily gang up against a third.

She is the astronaut's wife, who never leaves the earth and lives with her gaze up in the sky; the wife of every soldier who comes back broken and traumatised, having killed and tortured in the name of democracy and freedom, having failed, once again, to save the world or to change it for the better, yes, even a little bit.

1 comment:

  1. Ahhhhhh (a very long sigh) Bean.. what if... just what if..

    Great post xxxx

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