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the testament of mary @ wharf 1 sydney theatre company

When the lights come up on The Testament of Mary the audience is confronted with a traditional Catholic scene, Mary surrounded by candles with lamb in arms. The steps leading to this very iconic image resemble an altar , which is stunning in an understated style, yet the foreground of the stage is roped off with velvet cord draping languidly between the bollards: it is the church as a museum piece, a quaint antiquity. Then the edifice crumbles as Mary swiftly jettisons the props that have become a part of her legacy, a legacy which playwright Colm Tóibín revises from the safe distance of the ‘collapsed’ Catholic.

While visually arresting, especially to the uninitiated, a certain failing in this play is the writing, the story lacks a provocative edge. In Tóibín’s re-imagining of Mary, he likens her to such Greek heroines as Electra, Medea and Antigone, yet there isn’t nearly as much drama in this story for Mary as her Greek counterparts, just the lamentations of a grieving mother. Grief before and after the crucifixion, as Mary grieved for her son the way many parents grieve for children who are still alive yet lost to them.  Mary’s experiences were horrendous, but this is an old story. The crucifixion is so familiar to most Christians (and non-Christians) that the violence in the story is quite taken for granted. A tale as familiar as this needs a good deal more drama for Mary to ascend to the likes of Electra and company.    

In addition, the writing lacks a lyric quality that as audiences, we are used to hearing from Irish writers. Mark O’Rowe has had Australian audiences in thrall with plays like Terminus and Howie The Rookie with writing that is urgent, its break-neck speed keeping you riveted. Tóibín’s play simply washes over you, which as a story that is familiar, is dangerous as we tend to zone out when these stories, no matter how great, are re-told.

Alison Whyte travels through the range of emotions well enough, but there was a sufficient lack of energy to take the audience on Mary’s journey through Nazareth. It didn’t help that I was at a 6:30 show, that was largely populated by the early bird special crowd that you’d expect to see at the Ensemble Theatre, so more than a few of the audience members were quietly dozing.

At the heart of it, though, this is a play that comes from belief and ‘collapsed’ Catholic or not, even the most lapsed have a tendency to return to the fold, which explains why the play does not take more risks. It has been said of Catholicism: ‘ the Italians write church law, the French circumvent it, and the Irish are the only ones who actually adhere to it’. And believe in it, I would add. Of course not being Catholic I was struck by how much better the production would have been if it had been a wildly dark satire, as several times I yearned for Mary to exclaim: ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy’.

The  Testament of Mary is on until 25 February.

Featured photo – Alison Whyte.

This review was originally published on


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