Medea, Mother Courage, Winnie in Happy Days – Fiona Shaw has played some remarkable, embattled women in her career. Now she tackles what you might call the mother of all roles: Mary, the mother of Jesus.
In this tour de force, she and director Deborah Warner take Colm Tóibín’s stage monologue (which predated the Booker shortlisted novel) and give it spellbinding life. Warner’s staging begins with a prologue, during which Shaw sits in a glass cube, swathed in blue robes and frozen in patient, silent suffering. Seen but not heard – that’s the norm for a woman whose image is known worldwide but whose thoughts were rarely recorded.
Tóibín gives her a voice. That voice is intelligent, sardonic, humorous even, but raddled with grief. This Mary is a mother who has seen her son tortured to death and “splayed against the sky”. She has been asked, Mary tells us, by strangers for her account of the crucifixion and the days leading up to it. But they don’t really want to hear the details; so she tells us.
Shaw brings a brusque, wry, practical air to the part: dressed in a simple dark shift, she could be from almost anywhere and any age. She bustles about the stage tidying up. She’s impatient with the strangers who “want to make what happened live for ever”, sceptical about her son’s followers. She summons up her own memories of that turbulent period, of the miracles, of the wedding at Cana at which she desperately tried to warn her son that he was in great danger and, then, of the crucifixion itself. She describes in terrible detail the nailing of flesh to wood, the long agony of her son, the “vast, fierce cruelty of it”.
It’s harrowing but Shaw is quite superb, holding the huge theatre in shocked silence. And, as she wraps a shawl around herself, she calls to mind the countless bereaved women we see on our screens afflicted by wars and atrocities.
Warner’s staging occasionally creates resonant images: at one point Shaw slips into the position of a Pietà. Tom Pye’s set, dominated by a spindly tree, suggests Calvary but also faintly recalls Waiting for Godot. This is one, imagined, version of one account, but that’s the point: the show encourages us to play the familiar against the unfamiliar, to consider afresh whose voices we hear, and why.