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The Testament of Mary

Sydney Theatre Company presents THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, by Colm Toibin, in the Wharf 1 Theatre, Walsh Bay, 13 January – 23 February.

I trained as an actor and have spent a long time/career teaching actors, so, I am just saying, as someone who has a high regard for acting and actors:

The last productions from the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) for their Sydney audience concluded five weeks ago (or so) with the closing of A FLEA IN HER EAR (9 actors), SPEED THE PLOUGH (3 actors) and THE WHARF REVUE (4 actors). In the mean time Christmas and New Year, and the Sydney Festival has come and has either gone (or going). The large STC Administration and its staff has, probably, have had their paid holiday leave and a relaxed time with an assuring income coming into their bank account. Unless, of course, they were part of the responsibility for the presentation of THE PRESENT (13 actors), on Broadway, that opened a week or so ago, and either worked from ‘home’ or were in New York toiling (oh, lucky Ones) for that audience to be.

The audience in Sydney has not had a production for five weeks from their largest and leading theatre company. The four theatre’s, that the STC usually use, have being either unoccupied or ‘leased’ to others. THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, opened last night. The production has a single actor, Alison Whyte – ONE – on a Sydney Theatre Company stage (and, that actor, by-the-way, is Melbourne-based. No bankable talent in all of Sydney’s talent pool, it seems.)

In other words, not a single Sydney-based actor has been seen to be working for the Sydney Theatre Company in their home city, Sydney, during that time. As well, AWAY, the next scheduled production, opens in four and half weeks (18 February). So, over a period of nine and a half weeks, only one actor will have been employed by the STC and able to be seen at work, live, on a Sydney stage. Is there something wrong with this picture? There are, of course, other artists employed – Design and Stage Management. But only ONE ACTOR.

 A cursory glance of a couple of the back pages of the theatre program for the THE TESTAMENT OF MARY (or, any of their programs) has a list of the Sydney Theatre Company Administration with near a couple of hundred names (both full time and part time employees, I presume). So, on this day, 19 January, 2017, a Sydney resident can see ONE actor at work at the STC while ‘representing’ a gargantuan administration of Sydney’s largest theatre company. Some would have us believe Australia’s leading theatre company. In four and a half weeks time, when AWAY joins public scrutiny, ten other actors will be able to be seen – for a full visible total of 11!  11 actors supported by a couple of hundred administrators/support artists!!!

(N.B. I have just been reminded by a reader that AWAY is a co-production with the STC and the Malthouse – a Melbourne theatre company – and so, probably half the cast, i.e. 6 of them will only originate from Sydney, the other half from Melbourne. So, the STC will manage to show, employ 7 Sydney actors over that period. Just 7. CHIMERICA will be in rehearsal but not open until the 28 February. I have come to understand that the STC has invited some students from NIDA, unpaid, to fill out its cast, as extras. Really? Where is the Union? Pay some Professional Sydney actors, don’t you think? Give them a living, for goodness sake.)

I am just observing and saying… … … you know, La, la, la … … …

I mean, don’t you think that that is kind of weird? That the huge Corporation, that the STC is, seems to have been nurturing the artistry of one visible actor for NINE weeks. I look at the National Theatre program in London and can see a range of actors of considerable numbers every week of the year, in their three or four spaces. What is going on in Sydney? Are all those Administrative staff in the back pages of the STC program necessary over and above the presence of the actors (and other artists) on their Sydney stages? What do you think, Mr Williams? Mr McIntyre? Ms Azzopardi? The Board of Directors? What does it look like? Ought you to be rationalising the past growth of the administration and culling what may be excess, to find and divert the money saved to find the ways and means to have actors and writers on stage to be able to tell bigger stories for Sydney audiences?

I think it is more than weird. I believe it is, at the least, to be an unbalanced use of resources for the major theatre company, that is supposedly serving Sydney audiences and developing the Australian performing arts culture for today and the future. And even more catastrophically, I see it as unfair behaviour from the STC towards the aspirational actor who simply wants to work their ‘craft’ for their community. Is it any wonder the Independent Theatre community is thriving? It is the actors only realistic opportunity to utilise their skills, training, artistic ambitions.

Is anyone of importance talking to this company at all about this situation? Equity? Government? Funding bodies? Actors?

THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, is a one act play (80 minutes, approximately, with one actor,) and is a re-creation of the New Testament story of the final travails of Jesus Christ (although his name is not ever mentioned). The four books that we have, to assert the philosophies of Christianity, were written many years after the supposed death of that figure, conjured from memory, and serving the propaganda needs, perhaps, of the Apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is the John version that has sparked the imagination of the Irish Novelist, Colm Toibin. This work began as a monologue, became a novella, and then re-written as a short play. The image of the figure of Mary, Christ’s mother, and John, at the scene of Christ’s crucifixion striking him, specifically.

This is an impassioned monologue from Mary’s point-of-view, as an older woman, a refugee, fending off the questions of others of the circumstances and events in the life of Christ, as they prepare to write his story. She knows what happened, guided by the intuition and witness of a mother of her son and gives a pragmatic and fiercely defensive telling of the ‘famed’-‘framed’ events: such as the curing of the lame and blind, the bringing back from the dead of Lazarus, the Wedding Feast at Canna, the cruelty of the crucifixion (recall of Mel Gibson’s graphic film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, flashing through the memory bank) and the apostle’s construction of Christ’s own resurrection. Mary tells us of a dream she had had and told, that has been ‘spun’ into reports as ‘facts’, that then have been passed on as ‘truths’. Mary suggests the manipulative motivating needs of those who wrote and spread the stories, appalled that her child-son has been called the ‘Son Of God’ and ‘The King of the Jews’. (Scorsese’s THE TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, popping into one’s consciousness). Mary can tell us how her son was made, she intimates, suggestively.

The production, tightly ushered, Directed by Imara Savage – the Sound Design, by Max Lyandvert, perhaps a little over demanding – begins with a stunning, throughly Baroque image of the iconography of the cult of Mary that has grown over the centuries, freighted with overwhelming emotional energies, especially, for us Catholics in the audience (one, being myself, an engaged high school member of the LEGION OF MARY, in my traumatic Marist Brothers school experience). Soon enough, Ms Whyte steps out of the alcove of adoration/idolatory, designed by Elizabeth Gadsby, and strips that image down to the contemporary under-dressed woman that this Mary becomes in the course of the play, that finishes with her packing and sealing the Costume paraphernalia in a brown cardboard box to be stored – somewhere, somewhere in the dark, perhaps.

This is a play, essentially, about the mother/son relationship (Mr Toibin has written a collection of Short Stories called MOTHER AND SONS [2008], and it is, relatively, a present theme, in all his novels) as much as it is a deconstruction of the New Testament books, it seeing the events and the son through the imagined lens of this woman/mother. It is curious to reflect, however insightful and inventive this text may be, that THE TESTAMENT OF MARY is a play that uses those men’s ‘fictions’ to write a new version by another man. It was Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who started it all, and now we can add, Colm.

Ms Whyte, with the solo responsibility of this play is a very powerful, sure, storyteller. The language of the text has a formal articulation and construction that demands a gentle adjustment to hearing anew, but is carefully, studiously, lovingly, handled by Ms Whyte. The performance of some 80 minutes of concentration is very, very fine indeed – even if one wishes for a richer vocal instrument – and is full of deeply conjured imagery and, mostly, controlled emotional identification, though once or twice there is blurred information, its clarity overridden by emotional anguish.

What one takes away from the work is the intrigue of this familiar and once important story having been ‘bent’ and reviewed through a contemporary eye, supposedly, that of a mother/a woman, that really expresses the disillusionment of an ex-catholic (Mr Toibin classes himself as a “collapsed” Catholic) with his faith and accompanied by a rage at the failure of that philosophy to achieve the intentions of the goals/lessons of the testaments. “Once a Catholic always a Catholic”, I am told, and certainly I sat in the theatre with my personal indoctrination rising once again in my consciousness and causing me to lament the loss of my innocence as I continue today to try to make sense, find a way, of the how, why and what to live for …  to live through.

This production will work best for ex-Catholics, I reckon. For others, if the Christian gospels have not been part of your life, a curiosity of historic and influential fables. Perhaps, a possible stirring curiosity.

P.S. Was it not odd as one walked the long corridor of the Wharf Theatre headquarters of the STC, to the Wharf 1 Theatre, to see the posters of last years season (2016) still on the wall on the Opening Night of the 2017 season? One wonders which part of the Administration had neglected or failed at their job. The STC, in mid-January, already behind the times. Not an omen the Ancients would appreciate, eh? Just who is running the ‘shop’?  As any good businessman will tell you the quality is in the details.