Holy Mother of God, how could you say such things? Tense, sad, argumentative and just this side of bitter, Jacklyn Maddux is far from a Renaissance painter’s vision of the Virgin Mary. Then again, that symbol of serene and ardent holiness is not what Colm Tóibín wants her to be. What he wants, as things turn out, is something more combative and conflicted in its mysteries.
Watching Maddux’s solo turn for Corrib Theatre in The Last Testament of Mary, Tóibín’s stage adaptation of his 2012 novella, I thought almost inevitably of Nikos Kazantzakis and his startling, in some circles notorious, novel The Last Temptation of Christ.
Temptation was first published in Greek in 1955, the year that Tóibín was born in Ireland, and although Last Testament is in no way connected stylistically or narratively to the earlier novel, they share a thematic understanding: religious myth is built on human experience. It is rote among Christians to refer to Jesus as both man and god, and yet the “man” half of the equation is routinely subsumed, as if it were a tainted and shameworthy thing, in the glories of the god. Kazantzakis roiled the official waters by writing a novel in which Jesus, far from being above or otherwise separated from humanity, was deeply and passionately human. He felt every emotion, every temptation, including the temptations of the flesh; only by being fully human and understanding what that meant could he be the kind of god he was.
The Last Testament of Mary concentrates on the human, too, through the voice and experiences not of Jesus but his mother, speaking, finally, years after the events. And Mary, to tell the truth, isn’t buying a lot of the mythology. Tóibín chose the word “testament” carefully: This remarkable and sometimes heartrending narrative is indeed a testimony and not a gospel (from the Old English “god spell,” or “good news”). To Mary’s mind, there’s not much good about it. Her account of her son’s life and death could almost be a legal deposition, a statement of the facts as the witness sees them, and yet it is also a dogged questioning, a ruthless self-examination, a turning-inside-out of the soul.
A certain exasperation seeps through Mary’s testimony. Jesus spoke of love but could be curiously detached from the feelings and needs of individuals, including his mother’s. The followers he collected were a strange lot, sycophantic and yet also aggressive, eager to create a narrative of miracles where miracles did not necessarily exist. That water turned into wine at Cana? Maybe so, maybe no. Lazarus, raised from the dead? A cold comfort, it seems. These chroniclers after the fact, so eager to speak with her so they can fill in their own gospels? They’re something like bullies, their version of the tale already made up, pressing her to agree with their versions of the narrative. The tales they spin of the circumstances of his conception and birth? Not the way Mary remembers things. A god, she wonders? In some ways she hardly even understood him as a son.
Tóibín writes like a working-class angel, tough and down to the bone and yet also with the muscular lightness of music, and what it seems he’s after is a stripping-away of the religiosity to get down to the mystery itself, which remains a mystery because, well, that’s what mysteries do, and if you can accept that you will never understand them you are that much closer to their truth.
To embody this narrative (and “embody” is a necessary term, because the tale is word made flesh) Maddux and her director, Corrib’s artistic director Gemma Whelan, have cut against the lyricism of the language, keeping things deceptively plain and taut. Maddux holds the stage for 80 minutes without intermission, a terrifically difficult task that she pulls off by underplaying, speaking quietly and matter-of-factly, modulating her voice subtly, moving with determined steps around Samie Pfeifer’s spare set. It’s almost a conversation, one-sided though it is: come hell or high water, she’s getting something off her chest. The feel is very much that this, finally, is Mary’s truth, wrested from a deep and troubling disturbance of the soul.
And the truth is – like Thomas, like humanity itself – she has her doubts.
Corrib Theatre’s The Testament of Mary continues through March 5 at New Expressive Works. Ticket and schedule information here.