How do you play a character who's been depicted more than nearly any other character in all of Western civilization?
That's the challenge currently facing Irish actress Fiona Shaw, who in the past has played such well-known fictional characters as Harry Potter's Petunia Dursley and Marnie Stonebrook on HBO's True Blood — not to mention titanic classical roles from Euripides' Medea to Shakespeare's Richard II.
But Shaw's role as the Virgin Mary in Colm Toibin's stage adaptation of his novella, The Testament of Mary, is a different kind of familiar. The actress talked with NPR's Robert Siegel about being alone on stage, her vulture co-star, and what it's like to play the most famous — and most misunderstood — mother of all time.
On playing a well-known figure such as Mary
"Well, I think the world can relate to her because she's so known. And you know, like all great symbols, she has to carry all the meanings and all the desires and all the needs that anybody might want to put on her. So I can only offer my version, helped by Colm's writing. I'm not trying to pretend to be all the versions — just one."
On how this role moves Mary from the sidelines to center stage
"She's very little in the New Testament, you know; she hardly ever speaks, twice or three times. So they've definitely kept her in a background role. And Colm seems to have thrown a spotlight on her and sort of filled in, in a way, and he's diverted a bit from the Testament of the Apostles. But he has moved [the focus] fundamentally; it's a story of a mother whose son heads to terrible destruction, and her having to witness the destruction of her son — which is very painful, and in that way it's very like many modern women who may be the mothers of soldiers, or the mothers of revolutionaries. It's [there] really, I think, where the connection lies."
On Mary's version of the life of Jesus
"The premise of the play is that these guys [the Apostles] want to write the story of what had happened some years earlier and to make it global. And to proselytize a religion based on the death of this man. And she has a story to tell, and she says to them very forcibly that she is a witness. But of course, Colm has taken the story and diverted it slightly; she has witnessed it, she didn't like what she witnessed, she was frightened of her son's — the crowds that he began to gather. And she really found it hard to believe that he could work miracles. She just feels he's endangering himself with every big grand gesture that he seems to be associated with.
"And what's very good about this, is it becomes then a very sad meditation on the crucifixion, as she has to watch her son go through that torture. But you also get a sense that she wants her son back; she wants him to be her son. I think that's very understandable. She doesn't want him to be a big star in the world."
On performing a play completely alone
"I am [alone], sadly. Except for a vulture — there's a vulture in the show, and that's very exciting. There's a live vulture, but he's my only cast member. ... There's much talk of the small rabbits, but we didn't feel we could have a vulture and rabbits at the same time.
"It's terrifying, it's lonely. I'm directed by a great friend, Deborah Warner, and so she's at the other end of the show. So at least I can talk to her afterward and say, 'How did it go?' But on the stage alone, I suppose what happens is, I feel I'm surfing the story with the audience. Most of the audience, whatever their religious denomination, have some sense of Renaissance art and those paintings of crucifixions, so nearly everyone has some access to it. And then I tell this particular story, and I follow it as I'm in it, and the audience follow it with me. So I do feel a great communion, dare I say, with the audience. Which is a very good way of not feeling so lonely."
On how the play would be different with more characters
"I think what would happen if you did — and it's a very good question — you would have these two men, and it would become a sort of theological battle. But it isn't that; it's much more that she wants to describe her terror on that day that she saw him being crucified. And the details of it included watching a man feeding rabbits to a bird, and watching people cooking food on fires, and watching horses being shod.
"And it's psychologically very good about the tiny details that people find — the comforts they find at funerals, or after the death of someone, or in a hospital — those things that people very rarely share because they're frightened that they seem to be unconcentrated. In fact, everybody's mind seeks a way out when what they're looking at is too unbearable, and it's very true to the psychology of that, I think. And I think if you had two men in the room with her, they would just be hammering on about some truth about the New Testament. So I think in that way, it allows it be more emotional, I suppose."
Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary is currently playing in previews at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York City. It opens officially on April 22.