The following blog was written by PEN World Voices correspondent Judith Benét Richardson.
Jeremy McCarter was the skillful moderator of this fascinating panel, introducing immediately the Festival’s theme of bravery.
Colm Tóibín, the author of the novel TESTAMENT OF MARY, replied that in a now more secular Ireland, he had only needed private bravery, to face the lurking Catholic attachments of his own youth. Fiona Shaw, the actress who plays Mary, also looked beyond what she felt was the arid Christianity of her childhood to old stories of the goddess. Deborah Warner, director of the play and raised a Quaker, felt it was extraordinary that no one had written as Tóibín has about Mary.
My notes are written like dialogue, but of course I am only paraphrasing and hope I don’t do these dynamic speakers an injustice.
JM: How did the novel become a play?
CT: It was better for them (FS & DW) that it was a novel, as it gave them more scope. They had to create the imagery.
FS: CT is a visionary like Blake, but the theater is more crude. It has to be more rooted, developing in action.
JM: how long did developing the play take?
CT: MUCH longer. We talked about it for years, but they had to leave me out of most of it. “Writer go home. Writer shut up.”
FS: You have to see what will stand up theatrically.
CT: They needed to get down to 5 or 6 stories.
DW: High energy stories. It is so great to have a novel behind you.
CT: I was writing for a voice.
FS: But Mary doesn’t speak the way she would have, because there was a literary mind behind her voice. You get strange tenses when Mary tells stories as “what I heard.”
JM: The Reverend Jane Shaw described the play as a sermon.
DW: It is not a sermon, but it is definitely a spiritual work.
FS: We needed to make the ordinary poetical and vice versa.
CT: It was a bit like Wallace Stevens’s SUNDAY MORNING, in the effort to understand the truth of the matter, the ordinariness of the extraordinary.
FS: Must meditate on the reality of what really happens. We thought of the mother of Osama bin Laden.
In answering a question about protests against the play, the panelists felt they were nothing like previous protests in the Irish theater.
DW: Twenty-five years ago when we did ELECTRA in Derry, the audience was totally silent at the end of the play. Then someone stood up and said they wanted talk about it. It was very exciting.
CT: We’d like to do MARY in Gaza…or Tel Aviv. We need to address beliefs that lead to violence.
FS: Mary tells us she is not without sin, which makes the play humane and compassionate.
JM: Has this been a spiritual experience?
DW: Theater is a spritual experience, close to what church can be.
CT: There is a close connection between church and theater.
JM: As a child in the Catholic church, I was told every week that I was going to see a miracle - a good preparation for the theater! Is it tiring to play the part of Mary?
FS: Tiring, but worth it, if I can carry the audience with me.
Question from audience: How did you feel about the nude scene?
FS: I just do it. It has its place in the play.
JM: It’s short.
Q: How do you feel about your play being called blasphemous?
CT: Freedom of religion is fundamental, but so is freedom of speech. Both must be honored.
FS: MARY is a work of the imagination, not theology.
Q: Why did you have Mary feed a rabbit to a bird?
CT: I wanted an image of pure cruelty, the cruelty that is within us all.
Q: How do you reconcile your story with Mary as the handmaiden of the Lord?
FS: That was a story as well.
CT: I took my bearings from 15th century painters who tried to paint a real person. And, I taught a course here at the New School called RELENTLESSNESS. I wanted to write a relentless play. I drove along the Turkish coast and worked toward finding my rhythm. The landscape helped me find my rhythm.
Q: How did you develop the stage setting?
DW: There was only one written stage direction: NOW.
We tried hawks, rabbits and finally a vulture. We had Mary in a glass box with the vulture for awhile. It was a very long process. Production is very difficult.
End of panel.