In the week that Fiona Shaw completed her final performance of Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary at the Barbican theatre, St Paul’s Cathedral announced the arrival of ‘Martyrs’. This is the first of two video installations by Bill Viola and Kira Perov that will enhance the power of the St Pauls to explain what faith makes people do. The full title is ‘Martyr (Earth, Air, Wind Water)’ and depicts the agony and death that each element can inflict on a martyr. Intriguingly the other video will be about Mary.
Tóibín’s Mary is a severe, grief stricken mother deeply distrustful of what has become of her and her son. His name she cannot speak; for he had inflicted too much on her and for little good that she could see. The play ends as it begins with a wry, cynical questioning of his followers’ claim that the death would change the world.
Twice Mary says: it was not worth it. What he endured, what she suffered, was too high a price. But in the second saying of it there is a hint of a question. But it was not, worth it?
Martyrs raise the same question. There are always people who believe their death will make a difference. There are always those who believe that their death is the cost they will pay for what will change things for good.
As Mary in exile from her homeland ponders why her son died she remembers the raising of Lazarus from death and sees in that act the reason Jesus himself was put to death. There was both state and religious oppression at the time. What do oppressors employ most, whether they are the state or religious, to keep them in power? It is the fear of death and the capacity to inflict death. If someone could reverse the process of death they would have destroyed their grip over other people. In the end Mary realises that whether or not Lazarus was raised from the dead, the fact that it was believed was enough for Jesus to be eliminated.
No wonder, Pilate sealed and guarded the tomb of Christ.
This is no conventional portrayal of the story of Mary and her son. It is about the power of an idea or a faith to question what is sane. They may be bizarre. They may not play well to contemporary Western sensibilities. They have the capacity to undermine the control of the powerful. They empower the persecuted. Martyrs have an uncanny power to unsettle and de-stabilise. They are enemies of the status-quo.
Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning