Review: The Testament of Mary (Soulpepper)

The Testament of MarySoulpepper’s The Testament of Mary is thoroughly satisfying, now playing in Toronto

Soulpepper’s production of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary opened on Tuesday evening. It’s a one-person show starring Nancy Palk. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Although tour de force isn’t an expression I’d normally use, it’s what the couple leaving ahead of us said about the performance, and I agree. It was amazing. My friend Elaine and I were talking about it afterward and couldn’t really find a better description.

The ‘Mary’ in the title is the mother of Jesus, and her testament is the story of what happened and what she witnessed in the days before and after his death. This is not “Gentle Mary, meek and mild”; this is a flesh and blood woman sharing her memories. She’s sad, angry, afraid, resigned, strong, and weak. Her memories are like anyone’s memories: some happy, some sad, some frightening.

Exiled and alone except for visits from two of the disciples, she wants to tell her story: a story she’s never told anyone, a story that’s very different than the one that the disciples are writing.

Palk is wonderful as Mary. There’s a maturity about her that’s compelling. She owns the stage, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, sometimes moving from place to place. It’s easy to believe that she’s a mother telling a difficult story, and telling it as calmly as she can. I really liked the absence of hysteria and histrionics in her performance.

There’s an air of plainness about the production overall that I found very appealing. Lorenzo Savoini’s set and lighting match the mood of the play. It’s a big stage, but Savoini has contained it using a few wooden tables and chairs. There are (battery) pillar candles set around the stage and in niches of the theatre walls. Sudden light in an open doorway suggests the arrival of the disciples.

Gillian Gallow has designed a simple costume for Palk: a long sleeved dress that touches the floor, a plain headscarf, and a woven woolen shawl, all in very natural, subdued tones. It’s beautiful.

I also liked Richard Feren’s music. Sometimes I didn’t notice it but when I did, it felt appropriate to the moment. Adding a heartbeat behind the music to heighten the drama was very effective.

You can tell that director Aaron Willis and Palk have worked closely together to develop the play. Everything works so well.

Obviously, Toibin’s play is fiction. It’s an alternative to the biblical version, but it’s an alternative that I like. Mary seems like a real woman, a real mother. She dismisses the disciples as misfits. She talks about how boring they were, how she had to escape to the kitchen or the garden whenever they came to the house. Her version of the crucifixion is grittier than the version I grew up with.

It seems to me that the play wouldn’t resonate with people who don’t know the story from the Bible. I think you need the comparison. I could be wrong though. Maybe it would stand on its own.

I highly recommend The Testament of Mary. I really loved it. It was a very satisfying piece of theatre: it’s a great script, Palk is fabulous as Mary, and all of the elements – sound, lighting, set and costumes – worked perfectly to support the production.


Photo of Nancy Palk by Cylla von Tiedemann