Last night, I attended a performance of 'The Testament of Mary' at the Barbican Theatre. It was one of a number of solo performances I have had the pleasure of attending over the years. Well crafted, punchy explorations of human nature in differing contexts and performers who put themselves on the line. There can be nothing more terrifying as an actor and performer than realising that you have to hold the attention of an audience for a period of time (regularly more than an hour) alone. Distractions in the form of back projection, props and other aspects of mise-en-scene can help but if the performer is not fully engaged, the possibility that the audience will rapidly lost interest goes up exponentially.
Curiously but perhaps, appropriately, the audience were invited to walk around the stage prior to the performance starting last night. All of the props were on the stage, tables, chairs, candles and a live vulture. Yes, even prior to the audience's promenade around the stage, the vulture was perched minding its own business and simply experiencing the moment of being. The audience clambered around it and I am sure that after years of practising the Stanislavski technique of 'becoming the character', it viewed the intrusion as simply a mild distraction from its major role as 'The Vulture'. Even more significantly, Fiona Shaw came on stage in character as Mary and sat on a chair surrounded by candles and other religious iconography, whilst a glass box descended around her and enclosed her as though trapped in a frame, captured by the gaze of the audience who are free to interpret her deified presence as they choose. Mary, the perpetual victim of interpretation and misappropriation. Beneath the myth, a real woman existed, who remains ill defined and somewhat relegated to the sidelines, within patriarchal religious groups. Regardless of your theological beliefs, Mary has been somewhat short-changed. Whilst, the chaos on stage continued, audience members taking selfies and imagining themselves as actors on the stage (one guy decided to take a bow as he left the stage). Ironically, they did serve this role. Their engagement with the vulture and their relationship with Mary in the glass box served an aesthetic purpose. Despite the apparent closeness, there was still distance, uncomfortable admiration for Fiona Shaw as Mary and possible fear of the vulture.
The moment of the audience's stage invasion was ended at the time the show properly began when the background music increased in volume and the glass box was lifted. Mary handed out candles or lights to some of the audience members and they left the stage, whilst she walked off with the vulture. The vulture being a dominant symbol within Colm Toibin's 'The Testament of Mary', a novel which started out as a monologue created for the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2011. Then perversely, the lights dropped and some curtains came down, a stark reminder that the warm, illusion of intimacy was now over and reality was rearing its ugly head. A reality which as we all know culminated in the death of a man on a cross, which ultimately changed the world for better and for worse.
Fiona Shaw's performance was revelatory, nuanced and most importantly engaging to the audience. Her engagement with the props on stage helping to create a conflicted character who loves her son but not the orator, the magician with his healing hands and followers who get in the way. Her increasing realisation that he is doomed and that he cares little about his fate. When faced with the approaching threat of capture and his mother's impassioned plea that he should escape with her, he responds with the following line:
'Woman, what have I to do with thee?'
(Toibin Page 47)
I believe the same line or one that is very similar is used by Mary in the play. As is the case with many solo performances, just because it is performed by one person does not mean that the one actor isn't assuming multiple characters, as they recount their stories. Her response that 'I am your mother' (Toibin Page 47) is utterly heart-wrenching. The pain in Fiona Shaw's facial expression as she delivers this line resonates with the audience.
'The Testament of Mary' is an exceptional production and highlights the power of solo performances. I have seen more and more performances either written by the person who acts in them or else working with another's words in recent years. The format of the monologue is strikingly powerful when well written. The performer can either work with their own experiences or with imaginary characters. Although, interestingly, the act of construction lends each autobiographical piece the appeal of fiction. It allows the performer to slightly disassociate from the emotional content of their lives. Catharsis as entertainment and a means to create understanding. One of the most potent examples of this style of solo performance was the show 'Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister', which was written by Rebecca Peyton and Martin M. Bartelt. The play recounts Rebecca's relationship with her sister, Kate Peyton who was a BBC journalist who was murdered in Somalia, whilst working. Interestingly, although I imagine that Rebecca Peyton is the only person who has performed this play in public, it could potentially be performed by anyone as the play text exists. It has an experience to share, lives to offer up for scrutiny and empathy. I saw this performance on Sunday 8th January 2012 and Rebecca Peyton chatted to the audience after the show in the bar.
To close this blog entry, it is worth considering the following statement that appears in the programme for 'The Testament of Mary', a 'Director's Note' by Deborah Warner, as it sums up the complexity of the 'solo show', both from the side of the creative participants and also the audience:
'The 'solo show' demands participation, attention, and I would argue, our preparedness to enter the event. We all know that 'live theatre' depends on the heart-beat, energy and concentration of the audience in order to make no two nights the same; but solo work makes this obvious. In these tough economic times, it may not be the worst place to come to remind ourselves of the importance and involvement that we must play as audience members in the theatre.'
(Page 11 - Deborah Warner 'Director's Note' -'The Testament of Mary' - Barbican programme)
Every solo performance is an engagement with the audience. The performers need the audience as much as we need the escapism, the opportunity to escape into someone else's life. A good solo performance leaves you with memories of time passed in the company of someone different, who has changed or challenged you in someway. A bad solo performance can sometimes seem as meaningful as the egocentric rantings of a stand-up comedian or desperate orator standing at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. Either way, the act of exhibitionism and revelation should be saluted, particularly when the material is personal either because the performer has written the material her or himself or else by coming into the character, they have explored aspects of their own character. Fiona Shaw achieved this and more last night and 'The Testament of Mary' deserves to be the show that everyone wants to see. Mary is renewed and the Barbican continues to be one of the most innovative producers of contemporary culture.
Barry Watt - Saturday 3rd May 2014.
'The Testament of Mary' is currently on at the Barbican until 25th May 2014. It goes without saying that I think that you should go to see it.
The quotes in this blog entry from 'The Testament of Mary' by Colm Toibin are extracted from the Viking (Penguin) edition of the book, which was published in 2012.
The quotation from the 'Director's Note' by Deborah Warner appears in the Barbican programme for 'The Testament of Mary' which is copyright to the Barbican (and to Deborah Warner)
'Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister' by Rebecca Peyton and Martin M. Bartelt is available as a play text published by Oberon Books.
Constantin Stanislavski was a major theatre practitioner, frequently quoted as helping to create 'method acting'.