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The Testament of Fiona Shaw and Colm Tóibín

The star and writer of Broadway's upcoming The Testament of Mary share their fears and excitement about the greatest story ever told – as told by the Virgin Mary.

Irish novelist Colm Tóibín is no shrinking violet. On a dinner-date in Dublin, the author pitched a new play he was writing to two longtime-collaborators, the actress Fiona Shaw and the director Deborah Warner. The play: a recounting of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as told from the perspective of the Virgin Mary. First performed by a different actress in 2011's Dublin Theater Festival and later released as a novella, The Testament of Mary will begin previews at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre on March 26. The production stars Shaw and is directed by Warner, in their first Broadway outing since the galvanizing Medea which took New York by storm in 2002.

The day after the world tuned in to watch the coronation of a new pope, Shaw, who received a Tony Award nomination for her Medea, and Tobin, whose many other novels include 1999's Booker Prize-finalist The Blackwater Lightship and a short story collection called Mothers and Sons, took a break from rehearsal to discuss their excitement over taking the solo drama to Broadway -- and all things Virgin Mary.

Colm Tóibín and Fiona Shaw
(© David Gordon)

What is most exciting about this project and taking it to Broadway?

Colm Tóibín: Coming with [Fiona and Deborah], who, as theater artists, have mattered so much to audiences in London and in Dublin [and have a] collaboration that is [one of the] most dynamic in our theater world really matters. It's not like coming into Broadway with strangers; it's coming to Broadway with two people that I admire enormously and know very well.

How flattering is it to have a role essentially written for you?

Fiona Shaw: Being asked is always a good thing…It means that there's a love affair already started. I was daunted by it, because it is very difficult to dare to take on this, but it's been phenomenally good fun working on something that we've never done before. A novel sprawls all over the place, so you're able to grab bits of it, see if it works, and see if it doesn't work. We're boiling it down to the essence of what we think the story is. It's a story that everyone knows, whether you're Christian or not. Most people know something about this crucifixion, so we're taking a vague, iconic story and making it specific.

What inspired your work?

CT: The first inspiration would be a full immersion in Irish Catholicism, in which Mary is not just the Queen of Heaven but the Queen of Ireland. The first time my parents… left Ireland [was]to go to Lourdes, and they would all come back and they would be hugely animated by their time there. The icons were everywhere. No one ever questioned it. It was a fundamental part of life, a special devotion to the Virgin Mary in all her meekness. But I think the Tintoretto [painting, "Crucifixion"] was the one that really surprised me, because it was so untidy. It's filled with the untidiness of life, that if you're going to try and crucify someone on a hill on an ordinary day, people are doing other things, too. It's such an imposing, big painting. It was filled with a strange beauty and glow and made me think, "This was actually a story you could tell another time." You could include the chaos, you could include the outside, you could include the fact that nobody was sure as these things were happening what they meant or what they were.

How much knowledge of the Virgin Mary did you have prior to taking on this role?

FS: I used to feel she was a helpless character in blue, stuck up on a statute in County Cork. I used to pass there every day and she looked so nice, but rather a milky character. I was much more excited by violent martyrs and people who seemed to have lived more exciting lives, so it's very nice to go back and meet her and shake hands with her.

People who lived more exciting lives…like Medea?

FS: [Laughs.] Yes. Maybe they're not so different! There is, of course, a tragedy in this woman's life. This tragedy, as she says in the story, was never written because nobody's interested in her story. But it is a tragedy. She brought this boy up and he became incredibly famous and not someone she recognized, [which is] very hard for any mother. And it happens all the time to lots of mothers.

Is there the potential for it to be sacrilegious?

FS: I think [there is], because it does go off the page. I hope that the sacrilege is not in any way undignified. It's sacrilege by imagination, not sacrilege by intent. That sounds rather theological, doesn't it? [Laughs.]

Does the fact that this piece could stir up a lot of controversy intimidate or excite you?

FS: I don't think we're doing it to be controversial. I think what it will do is make people revise their view of what they think they know. I don't know whether anybody will object to it, but it definitely diverges from the New Testament. But, everyone would admit that the New Testament is itself a construct that was quite boiled down. Certainly, the Virgin Mary just doesn't appear enough in it. Colm has filled in a lot and has taken the premise of her agony and concluded it, so it's slightly gone off that page, but it's certainly gone onto a page that people will be able to identify with.

CT: The text, what I wrote and what they're doing, is very serious. It's not as though we're attempting to get involved with the mockery of icons. It's almost that we're recreating or exploring an icon, rather than reducing the iconic. So I would imagine people will respect that. I am serious. I am working at a level of seriousness. I'm not involved in jokes, mockery, or attempting to use my work to undermine what people believe in. I wouldn't do that. I care about what I do.