The Testament of Mary is quite something. Dramatic, moving and beautifully acted by Fiona Shaw, it is unequivocally one of the best shows in town right now.
Based on the Man Booker Prize-nominated novella by Colm Toibin, it is the story of the last few weeks of Jesus' life but through the eyes of the woman muted in all versions of the story - his mother.
In this play she is finally given a voice and what we see is the grief and anger of a mother who has witnessed the violent death of a son she was increasingly alienated from but never stopped loving.
The play begins with Mary as we recognise her, as the Virgin - a static mute symbol of motherly perfection draped in pale blue and surrounded by candles.
The audience is encouraged to get up close to the living statue as Shaw sits motionless within a glass display on the stage. I declined. There was too much of a scrum around her, too unseemly for comfort, but that I suspect was the point. How we have dehumanised her. In that respect, this is a very clever introduction.
The audience are soon returned to their seats, the glass display is lifted, Shaw's Mary discards the robes of her iconic image and reveals the woman she really is - complicated, angry and a firm non-believer.
"They want to make what happened live forever."
And with these angry, resentful first words Mary sets the tone for her version of events, how her son's followers have perverted the truth, misrepresented events, to fulfil a legacy and create a new world order that not only is untruthful but has robbed her of a son not only in life, but now in death.
Mary's cynicism is profound. She sneers at her son's followers, derisively referring to them as "misfits." She doubts all claims of miracles. Even when her friends Martha and Mary claim her son has raised their brother Lazarus from the dead, she remains unconvinced, again and again asking them what they actually saw and whether Lazarus was even dead.
There are no other characters on stage, no other actors in this play. Instead we, the audience, act as Mary's confidantes as she unravels in front of us.
Prostrate with grief, Mary wrestles with her conscience. Could she have stopped it? Why did her son reject her? And, worst of all, Mary confesses she abandoned her son when he needed her most. With him dying on the cross, Mary and his followers were forced to flee from the authorities, leaving her son to die alone with no mother to comfort him.
Shaw is so wracked with grief as she confesses this failure for which she will never forgive herself that you are quite moved.
The emotional balance in the writing is superb. Yes, this is a story of a pain we may understand though we will never experience but it is balanced with a few light moments.
Mary's reaction to being informed by one of her son's disciples that she had an immaculate conception is a stand-out moment, as is her observation of the "miracle" of water into wine at the wedding in Cana, an event she witnessed.
There is great depth and variety in the direction from Deborah Warner (who has collaborated many times with Shaw). The set is sparse and the story sorrowful but as Mary describes the people who've infiltrated her life, from the living dead of Lazarus to the eyes and ears of the State who warn her of her son's fate, you feel the stage come alive, filled with these characters.
It's Fiona Shaw that is the heart and soul of this production. She gives everything and her performance really moves you. The pain and anguish as she recounts these final days, these pressures, is betrayed in physical self-flagellation. Mary cannot help but take herself apart, such is the grief and guilt she is consumed with.
Such is the intensity of Fiona Shaw's performance that perhaps elements of the sound design could have been toned down a bit. Occasionally, as the tension and the self-abuse builds up, a burst of deafening white noise will crackle across the auditorium. It feels a bit OTT, as if the team are hammering a walnut. There's plenty enough in the performance without it being over-emphasised like this.
Yet this is a small niggle in what is a tremendous production.
At the end you are left watching a woman hunted by authorities determined to rid the state of accomplices yet clamoured for by others as an embodiment of a new religion that she rejects completely. Mary is an empty shell - a mother who will live the rest of her days with a guilt she will never be reconciled with.
The Testament of Mary is only on until the end of the month - a short run - but I recommend it unequivocally. It moved me to the core and its many messages and questions resonate with you long after you leave the theatre.
Barbican Centre, London to May 25, 2014
Image credits: Photo by Hugo Glendinning (c) Barbican Centre, London