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Sunday Times, 25 September 2011
Her First Testament
Colm Tóibín’s new play offers a shock as the Virgin Mary speaks. Marie Mullen, who plays her, tells Eithne Shortall there's more to the story than you might think
Testament is a play about religion, being performed in a country where that can still be contentious. It is a new work by a highly regarded novelist and a collaboration between good friends. It features the actress Marie Mullen, whose meticulous dedication to theatre is well known to peers and audiences.
"I feel exposed doing interviews,” says Mullen, inadvertently explaining why the tape recorder has been switched off several times and a producer called to check what she can and can't say about Testament, Colin Tóibín’s new play, directed by Garry Hynes.
"Our work is what talks for us. We're not always equipped to be good interviewees, but there might be something that we do in our work that you find real and attractive. Talking about a piece, I always wonder if I'm inadequate in taking care of those people who care about it."
At first the producers didn't want to do any interviews until after the one-woman play had opened at Dublin's Project arts centre. The plot details they provided were purposely scant. "One figure remains both iconic and deeply human," reads the description in this year's Dublin theatre festival programme. "A woman who was forced to bear an unimaginable burden in tumultuous times."
Presumably, the intention was to create an air of intrigue and avoid controversy. However, several people have already discussed the project. Tóibín has spoken about a monologue from the perspective of the Virgin Mary during the final years of her life, which she supposedly spent in Ephesus, Turkey. Scott Rudin, a producer planning to take Testament to Broadway, told The Sunday Times last year that the sole character does not believe her child was the son of God and regards Jesus's life as having been wasted.
For Mullen, these elements are unimportant. She does not see herself as playing the Virgin Mary, only a mother who has lost her son. It is up to the audience to decide what the character is feeling.
"I can't be responsible for that being what it is — Jesus and Mary — because that's not what it is to me," she says. "It's not important in the piece whether or not she believes he was the son of God. It's about something bigger than that. It's about you coming to the theatre and looking at all the stories you've known all your life and being brought to look at them in a different way; to change your mind or not to change your mind. It's a different angle.
"If it gets reduced, I get frightened, because I can't handle it. As long as I don't say anything that reduces it. It's so brilliantly done and precious and cared about by other people that I can't take the responsibility of doing it an injustice."
Mullen founded Druid theatre company with Hynes and has known Tóibín since she started performing in the 1970s. One of Ireland's greatest stage actresses, she won a Tony award in 1998 for Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane. In 2009 she brought the house down in Tom Murphy's The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant.
Tyrant exhausted her. She threw everything into the play and felt emptied, like she couldn't have an emotional response for a while. When Testament came up she was excited, but nervous. She thinks the writing is beautiful, but this is her first one-woman show. When Mullen commits to a part, it consumes her.
"I get obsessed with trying to be as right as I can, and to get to the core of things. When I'm working, I seem always to be in the wrong place, even in the rehearsal room. I'm here now and I should be over there working out that scene," she says.
"My head never lets me free. If I'm going out for lunch, I'm thinking, oh well, how long will that take? I can cause trouble for myself. I'm not neurotic; I'm actually quite a calm and ordered person. I have an ordered mind, but it demands that if I go to lunch, I can't go until I order that scene. I try and pull the wool over my own eyes so I can relax and not be a bore for an hour."
Mullen has spent the day rehearsing at the Leinster cricket club in Rathmines. When she goes home she has to chide herself into leaving work at the front door, at least for a couple of hours. "I have to get some dinner, clean up the kitchen, put on the dishwasher. I tell myself, 'Look at the post and see if anything needs to be dealt with, then in two hours you can take it up again'.
"'But I don't want to!'
"'But you have to!'
"'But I don't want to!'
"'But you have to!” she says, already looking exhausted with her hand pressed to her head.
"It's constantly like that. Some actors and directors are really baffled. They can tackle things quickly. I don't think I'm a stupid person but sometimes it takes me ages to process something in the right way so I can come out the other end."
She and her husband, the actor Sean McGinley, have a good balance. They have two daughters, aged 19 and 14, and when one parent is working, the other is at home. Or at least working in Dublin.
The couple met through Druid. Mullen and Hynes graduated from the then University College Galway in 1975 and, after persuading Mick Lally to forgo a summer working on building sites in London and play the lead in JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, the theatre company was born. McGinley was recruited two years later.
After more than a decade with Druid, Mullen moved to London. "I thought it'd be good to try something different," she says. "The RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] was good for that. We did one Shakespeare in Druid, it was great. And in London I got to do Shakespeare and a restoration comedy. I got to deal with language and set-ups that I hadn't experienced when I was in Druid."
She returned to Ireland a couple of years later and married McGinley. She was 37; he was 34. "1 never thought the difference that much. He was in his early thirties, I suppose, and I was in my late thirties," she says, laughing. "Two-and-a-half years has never been a big difference, at least not with me. Maybe with him it was, I never asked; older woman syndrome."
The Druid circle remains close and Lally's death last year was a shock. "Mick was a scholar," says Mullen. "He and Garry were very well read, and I used to love listening to them talking. I knew a lot about Irish literature in the Irish language and I knew about authors I loved. When I began to explore Synge, it was through them and with them. They loved literature and thinking, and I loved listening to them. I don't know what contribution I made, maybe I did. Just the way I remember it, they were giving me poetry and things to read."
Mullen and Hynes have grown up together and when the actress does a play, her friend is usually directing. She knows Hynes will cast her properly. Mullen says there are a lot of great parts for mature actresses; something she became aware of before most of her contemporaries. Her hair went white in her thirties and she jokes that she looked 40 at birth.
"I dyed it until I was 43 or 44, but I just got tired of doing the roots every two weeks. I know that ages me a lot but if I wore make-up, I'd look more my own age. I'm 58," she says. "I was never an ingénue. I never looked 17. Even when Druid was small and I was in my mid-twenties, I was fine to play the 40 and 50-year-old, no bother. I was never even offered the 17 or 20-year-old.
"Playing older parts was always easier because I could divorce myself from that age. If I was 40, playing 58 would be great. I could distance myself. Even with this piece now, when I hear the voice being too close to me, it doesn't sit right. I want to be a little bit pushed away. I want to put a little more distance between me and her. I hear Marie too much."
This sensation of having the actress rather than a character on stage is similar to the exposure Mullen feels when giving interviews. Yet in the end, she does a great job of caring for her collaborators and promoting the work. Nobody will go to Testament to see a woman veiled in blue, but the shroud of mystery and consideration will undoubtedly draw an eager crowd.
Testament, a Landmark and Ulster Bank Dublin theatre festival co-production, runs at the Project, Dublin from Thursday. dublintheatrefestival. com