How to wear denim this summer
Two-time Booker nominee and Irish writer Colm Toibin is again featured on this year’s Booker Prize shortlist, with the winner to be announced in October. The 58-year-old Toibin was nominated for The Testament of Mary, the story of a woman (the mother of Jesus) who has lost her son in a cataclysmic event that has led to an overpowering grief. Turned into a play, The Testament of Mary was performed on Broadway earlier this yea and nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Now it will be staged at the Joburg Theatre’s space.com from September 25 to October 6. Diane de Beer spoke to the director and the actor.
In Patricia Boyer’s head playing the lead in The Testament of Mary is all about telling a story and connecting with the audience. She was raised Catholic and says she has always prayed, but has always spoken to God rather than Jesus.
But for her, this story is not all about religion.
“It’s a mother’s story,” she says. And that’s how she approaches it.
The play has as its premise that, contrary to the Gospels, she does not believe that her son is the son of God and refuses to co-operate with the writers of the Gospels, who regularly visit her and provide her with food and give her shelter.
Both director and actrtess know it will be controversial with some people because it does scratch around in religious beliefs and the way certain things are told and accepted, but the thing that’s appealing is that the play takes a fresh look at an old story which, hopefully, will make you think.
“I have done a solo show before in London,” says Boyer, who went there to learn and perform on the West End after her TUT studies. She did both, only to return about five years ago. Her most recent and noticed stage performance was in Sylvaine Strike’s The Miser, which won her a Naledi Award.
But her head is in a different space as she homes in on Mary, the woman she is tasked with portraying in this tantalising piece.
She has to go to that time and place.
“You must remember,” she says, “these were Roman times and people were being crucified all over the place. Mary’s son was attracting too much negative attention and she was fighting to keep him safe.”
And that alone already puts a different spin on this particular tale. When we think of the story traditionally, it’s not really the mother we’re considering. It’s all about the son. That’s what makes this version such a fascinating one.
How does a mother look at her son who is stirring up all kinds of controversy at a time when that is not a good thing? That’s what Boyer’s Mary is struggling with.
“She is a mother who feels she is letting down her son,” she says.
As Boyer peels off the layers, she understands that this was a man who felt he was of the oppressed, but she also under-stands the mother who was worried about her child keeping company with a bunch of misfits.
It’s something she understands as she remembers her early days in London where she had to adapt quickly and play English to become part of the acting community. Once back in her homeland, she had adopted a different style of acting and the local casts viewed her as strangely as she did them.
“Syl gave me the chance,” she says of her Miser experience, which introduced her to locals.
And she’s holding her own as she tries to work the South African way. The British favour longer rehearsal periods, but also naturally longer runs.
“Here a six- or seven-week run is considered long,” she says.
In London, she had to toughen up to play for a year: “Previews are seven weeks long.”
The important thing, though, for this actress is that, however long your run is, you should be present on stage every night – in body and mind. That, and protecting herself and the text as she drives and pushes herself to get to the heart of the woman who is telling the story.
Telling tale of a mom trying to save her son
They’re dealing with something that is described as the greatest story ever told.
But what blew director Lynne Maree away was the way The Testament of Mary writer Colm Toibin revisits a story many of us hear from the day we’re born. So often is the story told that some of the emotional impact is almost tuned out. And that’s what makes a review of old stories, taking a look from another point of view or simply askance, so special.
“He doesn’t make any glib assumptions,” says Maree, who was sent the Tobin novella by producer Wilhelm Disbergen.
“I realised we didn’t have a script,” she says, and at first they were sent the Dublin version where the play was first produced and later the Broadway play which Toibin himself workshopped with actress Fiona Shaw and the director.
But both actress Patricia Boyer and Maree realised it was just skin and bones. It didn’t have enough meat. So finally they used that script, but referred back to the novella when they felt they needed more weight.
The New York production was quite operatic and large in scale. Maree wanted something intimate, a story told by a mother about her son.
“The story has become almost like Little Red Riding Hood,” says Maree, and before you turn away in shock-horror, all she means is that repetition takes some of the impact away because it takes on almost mythical proportions.
What she finds so appealing is that the author takes a fresh look at something that has become so much part of what we hear from a very tender age, we don’t necessarily engage with it any more. We simply allow it to wash over us and arguably be. But that’s only one of the issues they deal with in the provocative The Testament of Mary.
“Essentially this is a story of a mother trying to save her son,” says the director, who describes Boyer as easy to work with.
“We met and spoke the same language.”
That helps when you’re doing a solo show. There’s not that much room to manoeuvre with just the two of you in the room, engaged.
For Maree, the play is about storytelling, but it is also about the subversive approach she believes the writer adopts. More important, for the director and actor it is about finding a way with the words and the telling of the story to pull the audience in.
“We have to drive the story and weave the magic of this extraordinary tale.”
She knows that what they are tackling is controversial.
“It challenges the notions of Christianity,” she says, and already those words will make many falter. But the two women are hoping people will be open to something that perhaps challenges or at least questions the status quo.
It’s a play for people who love books, says Maree, about good writing and storytelling. And her job as a director is to stay true to the story, which is a dynamic one.