Testament of Mary, adapted from the novel by Colm Tóibín, tells the story of the last days of Jesus from the perspective of Mary. Such a story was always bound to be controversial, but this production at the Sydney Theatre Company self-consciously embraced this sense of iconoclasm. Mary, played by Alison White, first appears on stage like Titian’s painting of the assumption – clothed in brilliant blue and purple, wearing a red wig and porcelain skinned mask, and framed by an alcove as if she were an object in the wall of a church. She pulls away the costume, like a surreal striptease, to reveal an appropriately aged woman in a simple grey tank top and sweatpants, and launches into her emotionally charged monologue recounting her son’s final days on earth.
We are left with a sarcastic and astute woman, who has been persecuted by the Roman authorities for most of her adult life. Behind the veneer of the sacred is always a story about power. Underneath her Renaissance splendour, Mary is weary of both Roman imperialism and her son’s following of Jewish fanatics who try to resist it. Caught between the Roman spies who seem to be watching her every move, and the band of misfits who follow her son, Mary speaks with the resignation of someone with no faith in government or religion. For this reason, she is the perfect foil to the characters she describes around her, who all buy into the theatrics of Jesus’ miracles and eventual martyrdom to varying degrees.
The play slowly unpicks how the imagery, stories, and theatrics of Christianity have worked to cloak fanaticism in glamour. Just as Mary discards her colourful robe in the beginning of the play, Jesus turns up to his cousin’s wedding at Cana decked out in royal robes and proclaiming himself to be the son of god, and embarrasingly for Mary, upstaged the bride herself. The theatrics of his miracles elevated what was at its core a group of fringe lunatics into the founders of a new, global religion. What’s worse, Mary recounts with horror how the gruesome death of her son made his disciples excited as they sensed his martyrdom would bring their cause eternal fame. The spectacle of violence was as much a part of the glamour as the flashy threads, and the turning water into wine.
Mary’s own suffering has been objectified as an accessory to the passion of Christ for millennia. The weeping statues with agony-stricken expressions never capture how angry she must have felt not just at the Roman Empire, or the Judean ruling elite, but at Jesus himself, for putting her through such suffering for the sake of his ideological agenda. In its own way, this act of iconoclasm is an affirmation of how art can shape the way we think. We would never imagine that Titian’s Mary would question, criticise, or complain, when she is supposed to meekly mourn without any hint of malice. The Testament of Mary demonstrates perfectly what is lost when we turn gods into idols: a sense of humanity, and the ability to think critically.
Worshipping a sacred object may seem like a superstition from another, less enlightened age of human history – yet powerful individuals still deploy imagery and theatrics to make their agenda into something sacred. As one might expect, alt-right toilet paper substitute, Breitbart, has made dubious allegations that North African immigrants smashed and urinated on a statue of the Virgin Mary in Italy. Yet the power of sacred is not confined to religion. We can find traces of the sacred in American nationalism, in modern identity politics, and even in Hollywood award ceremonies. Violent counter-reactions only affirm how powerful the phenomenon is – belittling American nationalism has only galvanised the alt-right, and think pieces lamenting the ubiquity of Beyoncé worship are a true testament to her success.
The Testament of Mary’s answer to the sacred isn’t violent, and doesn’t try to replace one sacred dogma with another. This more thoughtful variety of iconoclasm simply invites us to set the pageantry to one side, take a more critical stance, and above all, to empathise.
Image: James Green